21 January, 2008

Crackdown Averted Racial Violence ?

Malaysia on Monday defended its crackdown on dissent, including the arrest of ethnic Indian activists and suppression of street protests, saying it had averted a serious risk of racial violence.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak raised the spectre of the country's worst race riots, when almost 200 people were killed in clashes between ethnic Chinese and Muslim Malays in May 1969.

"If the Malays of Kampung Baru come out then we have the specter of a serious possibility of a racial clash in this country," Najib said in an interview with AFP. The Malay enclave was one of the flashpoints of the 1969 riots.

"There were signs that they were preparing to come out so we had to tell them, 'look, don't make the situation any worse'," he said.

"The government was actually taking action to prevent anything worse from happening." Unprecedented street protests by ethnic Indians, which police broke up with tear gas and water cannon, opened a new faultline in Malaysia's increasingly tense race relations last November.

Five leaders of Indian rights group Hindraf, who claim the community is the victim of discrimination at the hands of the majority Malays, are now being held without trial under tough internal security laws.

Najib -- who as deputy premier is expected to be Malaysia's next leader after Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi -- defended the use of the much-criticized Internal Security Act (ISA) on the Hindraf leaders.

"A great deal of people thought we should have used it earlier, but if we had used it earlier there could have been pros and cons, those who say we are not tolerant, we are autocratic, we are not democratic enough," he said.

"So by allowing things to pan out and for us not to use the ISA early, I think when we used it the vast majority of Malaysians supported it." The Hindraf rally came two weeks after another rare demonstration organized by electoral reform campaigners, which saw 30,000 people take to the streets. They were also dispersed with tear gas and water cannon.

Emboldened by the new mood, civil society groups and non-governmental organizations have held several more smaller street protests in the capital, despite not having a permit.

Police have broken up peaceful demonstrations, and Najib said there was a limit to the government's patience.

"We are responsible for peace and harmony in this country and public order," he said. "We are quite tolerant in this country, but if it comes to the point I suppose when push comes to shove, we have to be firm about it." He declined to specify what action would be taken at that stage, saying: "We know what to do." Najib indicated the National Front coalition government could lose ground in general elections expected to be held in March, which follow a torrid few months that have included the protests as well as food shortages and a ministerial sex scandal.

After a resounding victory in 2004, which reversed losses in 1999, commentators say the pendulum is likely to swing against the government again.

"We don't want a dip (in seats), but our benchmark has always been a two- thirds majority," Najib said.

"Even during the worst of times, say in the 1999 general elections, we still managed to attain a two-thirds majority and I don't expect this time to be worse than 1999," he said.

Najib admitted that the race-based component parties that make up the coalition were "going through some problems" and that the government had a big job to soothe the public over forthcoming fuel price hikes.

"We have to manage it. We have to manage between good governance, good macro management of the nation, as well as possible reaction from the public. As long as it's seen to be equitable I think people will accept it," he said.

The ruling United Malays National Organisation has led the National Front coalition in government for half a century.

One thing for sure, the quick-fix declaration of a holiday for Thaipusam after it being shoved aside for many decades. Suddenly, we hear sober words from our power-drunk leaders.

The Hindraf serum is taking effect.

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