26 November, 2007

Another Local Demonstration Gone Global

Let there be no mistake about it: We live in a globalised world. But then again, what’s new about that? Only someone totally ignorant of the history of greater Asia would be surprised to learn that our neatly-compartmentalised nation-states are, after all, bound together by a common shared history that overlaps across so many levels and interfaces. Long before the European ships arrived on our shores, Asians have been travelling all across the great land mass, making tracks from the furthest end of China, across Southeast Asia and the land of the mighty Indus, all the way to the scorching deserts of Arabia and the Gulf and down the West coast of Africa. What colonialism did, however, was to interrupt this movement of peoples, cultures and ideas in two distinct ways: Firstly by dividing the nations of Asia into distinct nation-states with fixed (and artificial) borders; and secondly by attempting to control the movement of people by commodifying human brings into human capital instead.

The net result has been the creation of the world map as we know it today, with intrusive lines rudely and crudely drawn between areas that once overlapped and communities that were once closer united to each other. The Indian Ocean, for instance, was once the corridor between South and Southeast Asia, and that is why so much of Southeast Asia (til today) bears the cultural imprint of India. It was from India that the religions, philosophies, aesthetics and norms of society and governance of Southeast Asia were derived; and it was no mere coincidence that the Malay archipelago was once referred to as ‘Greater India’, testimony to how close the two regions were – both geographically and culturally.

Sadly today the division of Asia into neat compartments has managed to sever these long-established bonds, leaving the residents of both regions confused as to why they seem so similar yet different. Many a conservative nationalist in Southeast Asia is still loathe to admit that his or her culture shares so much in common with that of India’s, while many South Asians fail to realise that much of what they regard as familiar there is also present in Southeast Asia next door.

But perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is the fate of the millions of South Asians who have settled in Southeast Asia over the centuries, who were later categorised as colonial subjects and then systematically instrumentalised and exploited by the logic of colonial development and its divisive mode of racialised capitalism. Following the retreat of the colonial powers in the wake of the Second World War, millions of people of South Asian origin were left behind in countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore. Having been classified as migrants by the Western colonial powers and denied a place by the newly emerging nationalist forces of Southeast Asia, the Indians of Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries stood in that liminal space where they were neither local residents nor alien migrants, with their identity and citizenship put on a probationary basis.

The Indians of Malaysia – who are, by the way, Malaysian citizens – stand out as one community that has been triply blighted by the injustices of history, the accidents of geography and the failure of Malaysia’s divisive racialised politics for decades. This week a huge demonstration took place in the heart of Kuala Lumpur that was organised by the Malaysian Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) that aimed to highlight the inequalities that they have suffered under for so long. The HINDRAF demonstration that was 10,000 strong was met with the now-familiar response of tear gas and baton charges by the police, and the group’s leaders were accused of all things under the sun ranging from sedition to deliberately inflaming racial tension in the country. But while the Malaysian government predictably tries to dismiss this massive public outburst of anger and frustration, it remains a fact that Malaysians of South Asian origin still rank among the poorest in the country, are less represented in the local universities, and have largely been left to fend for themselves. Furthermore to add insult to injury over the past two years scores of Hindu temples have been demolished under the eyes of the same government that claimed to be sensitive to the voice of the Malaysian people. Needless to say, all of this has contributed only to worsening racial ties in Malaysia and has brought to the world’s attention the plight of one significant minority in multicultural Malaysia today.

Which brings us back to where it started, and the globalised world we live in today. Globalisation has merely developed upon the same communications and information technologies of the past, and accelerated the process of information gathering and dissemination as never before. While the Malaysian police were spraying the demonstrators with tear gas and water-cannons at lunchtime, by the afternoon of the same fateful Sunday images of the soaked and beaten demonstrators were already appearing on the internet via Youtube.com and other such sites. The reaction from Hindus worldwide has been quick, and now there is much speculation about how – or rather when – the Hindu lobby in India, Europe and the United States will react. As was the case of the concerted global reaction of the Chinese diaspora community to the anti-Chinese pogroms in Indonesia of 1998, the recent crackdown on Hindus of Indian origin in Malaysia may well lead to a wider-than-expected reaction from Hindus all over the world.

Globalisation has therefore proved to be a boon for minorities worldwide, who no longer feel that they are isolated and vulnerable before the onslaught of the majority around them. Thanks to the internet and improved media communication services today, even the plight of the smallest minority group anywhere may soon become a matter of international concern and debate. The Malaysian government, typically, has reacted to these developments with its own Jurassic brand of institutional inertia and denial syndrome, decrying any attempt to highlight the situation of the minorities in the country as yet another episode in the ongoing devilish plot to tarnish the country’s image by the ever-present ‘neo-colonial’ forces of the West. But it has to be remembered that those Malaysian Hindus were not being bashed and gassed by the police of a Western country, but rather by the Malaysian police themselves. And the Malaysian Hindu temples have likewise been levelled to the ground not by some multinational corporate hegemon but rather by the corporations and corporate interests of Malaysia, mostly homegrown. No, the plight of Malaysia’s Hindu minority is a singular Malaysian problem and the responsibility for it falls on the Malaysian government itself. In the meantime, while the government wrestles with yet another instance of people’s power taking to the streets, another local demonstration has gone global.

Written by Farish A. Noor
Taken from "The Other Malaysia"

Meanwhile, ethnic Indian activists claimed victory Monday as sedition charges against them were dropped, a day after they mounted an anti-discrimination protest broken up with tear gas and water cannons.

About 1,000 supporters carried the three freed activists out of the courthouse on their shoulders before a tense standoff with security forces outside a Hindu temple where they went to give thanks.

"We are seeking justice for the Indian community and today's verdict shows that we have made a small step in the correct direction," said P. Waythamoorthy, chairman of the Hindraf rights group, which organised the demonstration.

"It is a victory for the Indian community in Malaysia, but there is still a lot more work to do," he said, after the court ruled the charges must be dropped because prosecutors failed to provide transcripts of speeches.

The three Hindraf members had faced three years in jail for speeches earlier this month in which they criticised preferential treatment for majority Muslim Malays.

Hindraf said the speeches touched on freedom of religion and inequality for ethnic Indians, who make up eight percent of the population, against Malay Muslims at 60 percent and ethnic Chinese at 26 percent.

The Chinese population is dominant in business while Malays control the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation. Indians complain they run a distant third in skills, wealth and education.

Analysts said the unprecedented street protests by ethnic Indians have opened up a new faultline in race relations that are already tense, and presented the government with a major problem as it faces elections tipped for early 2008.

"It is quite clear we will have an emboldened community willing to fight for their rights. It's almost a renaissance or a rebirth," said political commentator Charles Santiago.

Malaysian Indians interviewed Monday defended the protests, saying they were forced onto the streets by a government that had ignored their grievances for decades.

"I think its a stepping stone for a better future, although change may not come overnight," communications executive Thavamalar Muniandy told AFP in the city's ethnic Indian Brickfields district.

"In my opinion the protest achieved its objective. We got the world to focus on us and the government can no longer ignore our concerns," said 24-year-old law student Sivamalar Ganapathy.

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