Now that the famously recalcitrant Dr Mahatir is no longer leader of Malaysia, we have heard precious little from our regional neighbour. So you'd probably be surprised to learn, that the place is politically bubbling. Not only is the former political prisoner and would-be prime minister Anwar Ibrahim no longer banned, and back on the scene, tens of thousands of ethnic Indians - long regarded as second-class citizens - have united to fight for their rights on the streets of normally sedate Kuala Lumpur. And as David O'Shea reports, the surprising results in last month's national elections mean Malaysia may never be the same again.

REPORTER: David O’Shea

For decades, the normally docile Indian community has suffered in silence on the lowest rung of Malaysian society. But with this demonstration last year, they sent a clear message that they would no longer put up with it. The protesters' persistence, even under attack from water cannons, said a lot about their determination. Only when the police added stinging chemicals to the water were they able to stop the demonstration. But by then the central business district had been locked down for over six hours, and the protest's organisers - the Hindu Rights Action Force or HINDRAF - had made their point, that the Indian community was sick of being officially treated as second-class citizens in their own country.

RAMACHANDRAN MEYAPPAN, HINDRAF: Many of the enrollment forms and all that, we don't see the word 'Indian'. They say "other races" - they put us down as "other races". We are not recognised. We want the Indian community, which has contributed in a very large way for the development of this country to be recognised.

Ramachandran Meyappan is one of the founders of HINDRAF and now its spiritual advisor.

RAMACHANDRAN MEYAPPAN: We feel it is our duty towards our motherhood – our mother language, our mother culture, our mother religion. So if anyone calls it by any name - let them call us terrorists or criminals or whatever it is - let them say we are not patriotic to the nation, let them call us by any name, but we are performing our duty.

Ramachandran's lucky to be free. Hundreds were arrested and a few days later five HINDRAF leaders were locked up under the draconian Internal Security Act, and they're still in jail. But the arrests came too late to silence the movement. HINDRAF had already become a household name. 82-year-old Sadhasivam sold his tapping knife a long time ago but he still remembers how to draw rubber.

REPORTER: Did you have a good life as a rubber tapper?

SADHASIVAM, (Translation): Yes, it was a pleasant life.

When Malaysia was a British colony, plantation owners brought in Tamils from India's south as indentured labourers to do the rubber tapping.

NAYANAMAH (Translation): We tapped the trees and lived over there, on this plantation. Look, this area was covered with plantations and houses.

Indians have been losing their homes for decades now as Malaysia develops and the old plantations are converted into residential estates, mostly for ethnic Malays. The families who have lived here in workers' quarters for three generations are now being forced by the government into these new rental flats.

NAYANAMAH (Translation): All the houses have been destroyed, when the people left their houses were destroyed.

But while some have gone, a determined few are refusing to leave. 73-year-old Nyanamah understands the need for development but says she won't be going anywhere without a fair deal.

NAYANAMAH (Translation): They promised to build us houses, now they want us to leave, but how can we leave? If our needs are met, then we are prepared to leave.

Nyanamah's 82-year-old neighbour is also bitter about having to leave.

NEIGHBOUR, (Translation): I have put all my energy into this plantation, now that I can’t work anymore how can I buy a house and live there? I’m asking for a house not a share in the plantation.

Like most Malaysian Indians, these people have a strong sense of their community's disadvantage.

NAYANAMAH (Translation): The Malays get everything, even the Chinese do well. The Indians are doing badly. Has any Indian made progress and been successful? Tell me, they have been oppressed, how can they be successful?

Now even the cemetery where their ancestors rest is earmarked to be moved, but that is something these families will not accept.

SHANTI, DAUGHTER: We don't want to move that - that is our poroperty - our grandfather's all inside there so we don't want anybody disturb.

Nyanamah's daughter Shanti is a housewife who had never been interested in politics, but like everyone else has been swept along with the HINDRAF movement. She even surprised herself by going to their demonstration on November 25 last year and by joining a hunger stike in support of the HINDRAF five.

SHANTI (Translation): I have a strong deep seated need to assist my community, sometimes I can’t believe it is me doing all this, but I have this burning desire to help my community progress. It’s very powerful, I will keep fighting till my last dying breath. No matter what happens, I have no fear.

The HINDRAF uprising has brought simmering discontent to the surface and approaching the election, Shanti believes it has the majority Malay ruling party worried.

SHANTI (Translation): The situation has changed and the Malays now fear us, the Indians have come together now. The Malays fear the elections might bring about change.

Another source of resentment for Malaysia's Indians is that while mosques seem to be springing up everywhere, Hindu temples are being destroyed.

BOY (Translation): Come over here, I will show you where the god is, brother! It’s over here.

The destruction of this temple last November came during the build-up to the Hindraf demonstration, and just days before the Hindu holy festival of Deepavali. That the authorites wouldn't wait until after the ceremonies is unforgivable to Ramachandran.

RAMACHANDRAN MEYAPPAN: They just asked for two days for the temple to be relocated, but they refused that, and the enforcement came to break the temple. Within two hours the people's power came to action, they came to protect the temple. That was a very significant thing and that news went throughout the country and through the world, and that created the momentum.

These boys won't forget the early morning visit by the authorities which saw the temple destroyed.

BOY (Translation): They smashed it up at 5 in the morning, there was a group of people all standing over there and they smashed it up. They brought sticks and hit everyone, they smashed the gods face and poked out and broke the eyes.

Activists from HINDRAF joined the locals and tried to stop them.

BOY (Translation): Faces were burnt, they hit everyone and there was blood, their heads were broken. It was the police.

REPORTER: So where do you go to pray now?

BOY (Translation): Over there.

His family managed to save some of the statues and his mother has set them up as a makeshift temple in their home.

WOMAN (Translation): Now we don’t have a temple to pray in, where are we supposed to go? They said they would do something for us but they destroyed our temple. Nobody did anything for us.

Despite their requests, they have not been given a suitable alternative site for their temple. So, in an act of defiance, they are going ahead and building one anyway. It's wedged between two houses just metres from the site of the old one. Today the first brick is blessed and their new temple is up and running.

WOMAN (Translation): Temples should be built, not destroyed. So many rites, prayers and donations have built up the energy of the temple and you just come and trample all over it! How dare you? What have we gained by supporting you? Nothing at all! The government has destroyed our temples!

Much of the Indian community's anger is directed at Public Works Minister Samy Vellu. He is also President of the Malaysian Indian Congress party which has been in a long, cosy coalition with UMNO, the dominant Malay party.

SAMY VELLU, MALAYSIAN INDIAN CONGRESS: I have, as minister for the past 29 years, I have built more than 1,500 temples. I have fought the government in the cabinet to say that the temple must be retained.
These people go on building small, small, unwanted temples on land that is private land - somebody's land, government land, by the side of the rail, by the side of the road. I don't think that is a real respect for Hinduism.

When the Indian community's frustration started boiling over last November, thousands gathered here at the Batu Caves Temple compound to get some rest the night before HINDRAF's big demonstation. They had no inkling of what was to come.
Early in the morning, before dawn, the police attacked, firing a water cannon and tear gas into the temple grounds. In the chaos that followed, there were injuries on both sides. 31 people were charged with attempted murder of a policeman. This, and the very fact that police had desecrated a place of worship, left Indians across Malaysia furious with the government.

V.K. REGU, HINDRAF: We cannot forgive this government, we cannot forgive anyone involved in this action. This will be a black mark on the heart for the generations. Nobody can forgive them for their actions.

With the Malaysian Government refusing to hear them out, HINDRAF tried to deliver a petition to the British Embassy. They claim Indians were abandoned by the British Empire after independence, and they have taken out a trillion-dollar lawsuit against the British Government. The man the Malaysian Government considers the sole Indian political voice, has little sympathy for their tactics.

SAMY VELLU: They encourage is bad practices of youths going around fighting and shouting and doing everything. They have completely spoilt this peaceful community. This is what they have gained, nothing else, but they are diminishing slowly.

Traditionally, Indians have voted in a block for the Malaysian Indian Congress, which has allowed Sammy Vellu to keep his seat for 29 years. But with a national election rapidly approaching, it's clear to everyone but him that these loyalties may be shifting.

REPORTER: But it does seem this time you are in a difficult position?

SAMY VELLU: No, not at all. I am very comfortable.

REPORTER: Aren't you caught between a rock and a hard place? You've got quite strong opposition among the Indian community.

SAMY VELLU: No, not at all.

With the election campaign under way, HINDRAF activists have called a prayer session and speeches at this temple for the five leaders being held under the Internal Security Act. But police have just issued a warning not to give speeches in the temple.

MAN: So how come I can't speak here? How are the people going to listen? I have to use microphone. So this is what is happening in Malaysia. Now this is truly Malaysia.

The temple manager is in a tight bind - under pressure from his community, and from the authorities.

REPORTER: Australian television. What's the problem?

TEMPLE MANAGER: We have a problem in our temple, we have a problem. We cannot go against the government.

MAN (Translation): They are testing us, remain calm. If anything happens, listen calmly and walk away. If the police ask us, don’t say anything and leave. Long live Hinduism!! People Power!

The brother of one of the five HINDRAF leaders held in prison is here, and he's not happy at being forced into the temple carpark.

BROTHER (Translation): We can’t pray in the temples, they gang up on us. What is this happening, you can’t change this!

The wife of another of the detained leaders, M. Manoharan, is on the hustings. Mrs Manoharan has been campaigning on behalf of her husband, who, strange as it sounds, has been contesting this election from his jail cell.

MRS MANOHARAN (Translation): Somehow, please vote for him, if he wins, it’s good for all of us. I’m sure you all want him back and I want him back too. People power!

HINDRAF is not a political party. Instead it's urging Indians to vote for any opposition candidate. The donations flow and it's another successful night for the campaigners. As the election draws nearer, there is a growing sense that the government is in deep trouble. In an electorate just outside Kuala Lumpur, an inexperienced new opposition candidate is hoping to unseat the longstanding incumbent, a senior member of Samy Vellu's Malaysian Indian Congress. To raise his profile, Manikavasem has brought in a man with serious political clout.
Anwar Ibrahim was once the deputy prime minister before falling out of favour with the ruling party and being jailed on sodomy charges. He's now back as head of the Keadilan Party, and he's convinced the diverse opposition parties not to run candidates against each other – as in the past – and focus their energy instead on defeating the government. Today he's come to lend a hand to one of his party's candidates.

ANWAR IBRAHIM, LEADER KEADILAN PARTY (Translation): It is right, he is Indian, Hindu, I have known him a long time. When it was difficult for me and I got trampled on, he stood up firmly and fought for justice.

Anwar has a speech for every occasion, and here at a market he tailors the message accordingly, blaming the ruling party for the cost of living.

ANWAR IBRAHIM (Translation): Fish and onions are expensive because the Barisan National is in power. The election is on the 8th… on the 9th, if we win, God willing, the price of oil and onions will come down.

His popularity infuriates the government who denounce him as a political opportunist whose latest stunt is championing the rights of Indians.

SAMY VELLU: I know him very well. I worked with him earlier, I know what a tricky man he is. These people are drawn in by what he says, but you wait and see. Anwar Ibrahim says he sympathises with the Indians, but he doesn't give seats to the Indians to fight.

But at least one Indian candidate has been given a chance at a seat and Manikavasem is justifiably happy to have this boost to his campaign. It may just be enough to convince ethnic Malays to vote for him as well as Indians.

ANWAR IBRAHIM (Translation): Once again, thank you.

SAMY VELLU: When he was deputy prime minister, minister for finance, did he ever come out and do anything for the Indians? No. He was traditionally a 1-race man. He had the finances in his hands. If he wanted to he could have done a lot for us, but he didn't. But today he is... Ooh, I don't want to say it. I have a lot of things to say.

But despite critics' doubts about his sincerity, Anwar Ibrahim is determined to connect with the Indian community.

ANWAR IBRAHIM: We have to respond positively and responsibly to the legitimate grievances - education, poverty, unemployment. This government is totally in a state of denial, arrogant, and not even prepared to listen to their grievances. I think we have to make amends. We cannot treat minorities in this way in any country. Thank you.

On 8 March, Malaysians went to the polls with the fate of the Indian movement hanging in the balance. As HINDRAF's spiritual leader went in to vote it was still unclear whether they could muster a significant swing against the government.

RAMACHANDRAN MEYAPPAN: We want to prove that Indians have now united for one cause and they have come out to stand for that cause. And we want them to recognise this through this voting process.

When the results came out, the power of the Indian vote was confirmed. The coalition that has ruled Malaysia since independence had its worst result ever. The major urban industrial states all fell to the opposition, and although Prime Minister Badawi was putting on a brave face, there were calls for him to stand down. Because of the tension, the police chief banned all victory celebrations. For the main players in Malaysian politics the election result was like an earthquake.

REPORTER: In the Tamil papers here, there have been reports of eggs thrown at you during this campaign?

SAMY VELLU: No, no. Nobody dare to throw eggs on me.

Samy Vellu, the most senior Indian face in government for three decades, lost his seat on his 72nd birthday. His Malaysian Indian Congress Party was decimated, holding on to only three seats.

MANIKAVASEM, KEADILAN PARTY: The Chinese community are supporting me. If have 50% or 40% from the Malay I will win this Kapar seat.

Manikavasem did get Malay support. He won the seat and now sits in parliament. And incredibly, thanks to his wife's tireless campaign, the jailed M. Manoharan also won his seat. Malaysian authorities are still trying to work out how he can represent his constituency from a prison cell. In all, a record 10 Indian opposition MPs were voted into power. And the man credited with pulling together the diverse opposition movement saw 31 of his Keadilan party candidates win seats, including both his wife and daughter. One of them is expected to make way for him shortly after his 10-year ban from politics expired last week. The balance of power in Malaysia may well have changed forever.

Feature Report: Malaysia’s Indian Uprising






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