Temple demolitions anger Malaysia Indians

The state tried in recent weeks to soothe the ethnic minority's longtime grievances.

Lai Seng Sin/AP
Hunger strike: Last month, Indians outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, protested the arrest of five Indian leaders who’d rallied against a Hindu temple demolition.

Smashed bricks mark the spot where the slum stood until bulldozers rolled in last November. Krishnan Ponnusamy, a market trader, can see the remnants of 200 houses of mostly ethnic-Indian former residents, who were his neighbors for two decades.

His gaze lingers on pulverized plaster scattered on the site where he used to offer prayers to his Hindu deity. "A house we can build again. A temple is about more than money. We are Indians, and this is our faith," he says.

Slum clearances often generate sparks. In multiracial Malaysia, where communal tensions simmer, the uproar over November's demolition of the Sri Maha Mariamman temple has rippled outward and presented a frontal challenge to the country's ruling elite over its perceived neglect of ethnic Indians.

The destruction of the temple by Malay-Muslim officials was a blow to the minority community of Indians, who make up 8 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people but barely register in corporate and political circles.

Three weeks later, the anger exploded on the streets of the capital, Kuala Lumpur. About 20,000 ethnic Indians defied a government ban to march under the banner of the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), a hitherto obscure group.

For hours, police using chemical-laced water cannons and tear gas fought the protesters. It was a rare display of antigovernment dissent in Malaysia.

"The bottom line is, who has the power? Malays have the political power, Chinese have business power. Indians don't get anything," says Murugesan Kulasegaran, an opposition lawmaker and ethnic Tamil.

Rally organizers admitted afterward they were taken aback by the huge turnout. Less surprising, say political observers, was the response of the government, which arrested five HINDRAF leaders under a controversial security law that allows indefinite detention without trial. The five were accused of inciting racial hatred and threatening public safety.

Government officials have also linked HINDRAF to South Asian extremist groups such as the Tamil Tigers, accusations the men's lawyers deny.

Malaysian leaders have taken small steps to appease Indians. It issued an apology for the Shah Alam temple's destruction. Knocking it down was "wrong," and "we are sorry for that," Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak stated Sunday, three months after the event.

State governments have been advised to move slowly on demolitions while Hindu leaders draw up a national register of temples, which number around 17,000.

As another gesture of reconciliation, the government declared Jan. 23 a public holiday for Thaipusam, an annual Hindu festival. But many Indians stayed away from a ceremony at a Hindu temple in the capital after activists called for a boycott.

Behind the emotive issue of Hindu temple clearances is a steady shift in Malaysia away from a plantation economy that was dominated by ethnic Tamil Indian migrants. As more land is rezoned, the staples of these communities – company housing, schools, and private temples – are vanishing. A 2004 study found that 300,000 plantation jobs were lost between 1980 and 2000. Many Tamils who move to cities drift into menial, low-paying work.

"The temples were the focal point for the community. Indians are being swept out of these areas as they're redeveloped," says Clive Kessler, a professor at the University of New South Wales.

Mr. Ponnusamy's story is typical. Born in 1957, the year of Malaysia's independence, he was raised on the rubber plantation where his father worked. When it closed in the mid-1980s, he moved to the slum in Shah Alam, an industrial city.

Armed with a court order to clear the public land, the local government offered to relocate the residents and their temple. But residents said the new housing was far from their jobs.

Not all Indians are falling behind in Malaysia: about one-quarter of Malaysia's doctors and lawyers are ethnic Indians. While many Indian intellectuals are sympathetic to the plight of poor Tamils, they object to HINDRAF's fiery rhetoric.

Analysts say the country's race-based political system offers few avenues for advancement, and Indians are reduced to being junior partners in the Malay-led ruling coalition. Deputy Prime Minister Razak admitted Monday that racial tensions could cause a "slight dip" in government support in the next general election, expected by March.

V. Raidu, a brother of one of the detained HINDRAF leaders, says the state must do more to woo Indians. "We don't know when the speeches will stop and they will finally take action," he says.

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