Signs of change

Published : Jun 05, 2009 00:00 IST

In Singapore

PRIME Minister Najib Tun Razak is on a charm offensive to woo compatriots, particularly those of the ethnic-Indian minority. The genesis of this political move can be traced to the results of the snap general elections held in early 2008.

In fact, in that round of elections anger among the people of Indian origin catalysed a broad multi-racial vote of disaffection against the long-governing coalition. The negative vote was, however, not enough to topple the National Front, the multi-party alliance that cuts across Malaysias ethnic divide.

On May 8, Najibs government announced the release of three detained leaders of the outlawed Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf). Two other Hindraf leaders were set at liberty soon after he succeeded Abdullah Ahmad Badawi at the helm of the National Front coalition a month earlier. The Front is an alliance of parties, each representing the Malay majority, the ethnic-Chinese minority and the people of Indian origin.

Does the release of all five Hindraf leaders signal the emergence of a new political dynamics in Malaysia? The answer, according to Hindraf chairman P. Waytha Moorthy, is an emphatic no at this stage. Yet, it is difficult to be dismissive of this development, which could, if suitably followed through, lead to national reconciliation.

Hindraf organised a massive rally of ethnic Indians in Kuala Lumpur in November 2007. A non-governmental organisation, it was formed almost a decade earlier to mobilise ethnic Indians and to articulate their grievances. Not having made much progress in redressing them, its leaders raised the stakes in 2007. The demolition of a popular Hindu temple in Muslim-majority Malaysia served as a catalyst for Hindrafs cause. Following the demolition, on the eve of Deepavali that year, Hindraf intensified its campaign for fair play and justice.

The organisations rallying cry all along has been one of marginalisation of ethnic Indians since Malaysias independence in 1957. Unsurprisingly, the temple episode of 2007 was seen in much the same light.

Hindrafs rally led to the emergence of new battle lines in Malaysias politics. The authorities used force to quell the unprecedented rally, and Malaysia entered uncharted political territory. In December 2007, five Hindraf leaders P. Uthayakumar, V. Ganapathi Rao (Ganabatirau), M. Manoharan, R. Kengadharan and T. Vasanthakumar were detained without charges and trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA). Waytha Moorthy, who too played a critical role in organising the rally, was out of Malaysia at that time and he continued to stay in self-imposed exile, directing Hindrafs other campaigns as well.

Malaysias politics soon entered a dramatic phase, with the opposition parties riding the crest of the protest momentum that Hindraf had generated. Each of the major opposition parties began a process of internal coalescence into a multi-ethnic entity.

The party led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, a leader from the Malay-majority stream, began attracting people from other races. The Democratic Action Party (DAP), with its support base among Malaysias ethnic-Chinese minority, started acquiring the attributes of a multi-ethnic unit. Even the PAS, the religion-based opposition party, gave up its original political punchline of converting Malaysia into an Islamic state. By contrast, the long-ruling National Front coalition remained a power-sharing forum of ethno-centric parties, each representing a specific community.

The 2008 election, held in this climate of changing political dynamics, came to be defined by a people power paradigm. Significantly, this rallying call was Hindrafs political contribution to the opposition camp. While several issues were aired during the poll campaign, the result was widely seen in Malaysia as a triumph of people power.

The opposition coalition, consisting of Anwars party and the DAP and the PAS, made major gains. More significantly, the National Front fell below the two-third majority mark in Parliament. At the same time, Hindraf, which was not a member of the opposition coalition, did not figure prominently in the political configuration of the new Parliament. However, the people power call remained resonant.

The poll result, seen as a setback for the National Front, encouraged Hindraf to sustain its pressure tactics. This prompted the government, still led by Abdullah Badawi, to outlaw Hindraf several months after the 2008 general elections. On a parallel track, Najib, then emerging as Abdullah Badawis successor, apologised for the temple demolition. Not a formal statement, the apology was timed for the first anniversary of the demolition, but it went largely unnoticed. However, the potential political importance of his gesture was obvious to those who cared to notice it.

For Najib, the journey from his apology as Deputy Prime Minister to his latest prime ministerial act of freeing the Hindraf leaders should make political sense. A relevant question now is whether he will lift the ban on Hindraf. And, if he does, will he take logical follow-up actions for a national reconciliation?

Waytha Moorthy, in a telephonic conversation from London on May 9, struck a cautious, even sceptical note. He told Frontline that Hindraf would be willing to engage the Malaysian government in a dialogue over issues of concern to ethnic Indians. Insisting that the ban on Hindraf be lifted, he emphasised that its leaders, now set free, were seen by the government as no longer a threat to the country. It was evident, therefore, that the past attempt by the Malaysian authorities to link his organisation to terrorist outfits was no more than a gimmick. Also, Hindraf had never sought sovereign statehood for Malaysian Indians, Waytha Moorthy pointed out.

The crux of Hindrafs charter of 18 demands was that the ethnic-Indian minority be treated as citizens, not third-class citizens, of Malaysia. In a sense, Najib has taken a positive step by releasing the ethnic-Indian leaders. Another step forward would be a formal apology from the government for its long-time wrong-doing in the treatment of Malaysian Indians.

In the big-picture framework, Najib should release unconditionally all those being detained without charges and trial under the ISA. Calling for the abolition of this Act itself, Waytha Moorthy said the detention camp, Malaysias Guantanamo Bay, should also be closed.

How unconditional was the release of the five Hindraf leaders? It is understood that all of them, except Uthayakumar, signed a document prepared by the government in exchange for personal freedom. Uthayakumar refused to sign any such document. In the event, he was thrown out of the detention camp as he insisted on staying there itself rather than accept conditions.

This aspect of Hindrafs profile may prove particularly decisive for the future of the organisation. When it raised the stakes in 2007, Ganapathi Rao, originally a proactive but conventional opposition leader, was prominent among those at the forefront. Soon Manoharan too began to play a lead role in an organisation dominated at the top by lawyers and other professionals. While still in detention, he won a State Assembly seat in the 2008 general elections. Shortly before his release, he contemplated giving up that seat on the grounds that his continued detention almost nullified his legislative position. His present political disposition, as also that of Ganapathi Rao, will be relevant to Hindrafs future direction.

These niceties raise some questions about the spirit of the organisation in sustaining its M akkal Sakthi (people power) campaign. Significantly, Makkal Sakthi is the name Hindraf gave itself after being banned.

Waytha Moorthy has expressed his willingness to wait for Najib to complete 100 days in office before making any major move. This period is meant to assess the Prime Ministers attitude towards Hindraf. While he certainly surprised it by setting its leaders free, the potential equation between the two sides remained unclear. A possibility is that Uthayakumar may seek to capitalise on his unconditional release and fast-forward a new Hindraf agenda.

Some other unresolved aspects centre on Najibs possible stand on the issue of Waytha Moorthys return to Malaysia. In a larger sense, the future of the movement for the rights of Malaysian Indians may be determined, in part, by the power of personalities as well.

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