Thursday, December 13, 2007

Malaysia detains Indians under security law

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia invoked a tough internal-security law on Thursday to indefinitely detain five ethnic Indian activists from a group that had staged a mass anti-government protest last month.

A police official, who declined to be named, said the five belonged to the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), which had stunned the government by bringing more than 10,000 ethnic Indians onto the streets to complain of racial discrimination.

One of those detained on Thursday was a Hindraf leader, lawyer P. Uthayakumar, who had already been charged with sedition for alleging that Malaysia practised "ethnic cleansing" of Indians, which make up about 7 percent of the population.

"They said they were arresting him under the ISA (Internal Security Act), but they didn't say where they were taking him," said Shantha, who answered Uthayakumar's mobile phone after news of the detentions and said she was his secretary.

She gave the names of three other detainees as M. Manoharan, V. Ganapatirau and T. Vasanthakumar. She said she was not aware of a fifth detainee, though the Hindraf Web site gave the fifth name as K. Kengadharan, also a lawyer.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who came to power four years ago promising more transparent and open government, had said this week he would have no trouble signing a detention order to ensure public security and national stability.

The Hindraf rally was one of two mass protests last month. A separate crowd of around 10,000 people had earlier turned out on the streets of the capital to demand fairer elections, amid expectations of a snap poll by March 2008.

But the Indian rally, though largely peaceful, aroused deep concerns within government, and also among many ordinary Malaysians, because of the country's history of tense and sometimes explosively violent race relations.

In 2001, five people were killed and 37 wounded in riots between majority ethnic Malays and Indians which began after an Indian kicked a chair over at a Malay wedding. In 1969, hundreds were killed in rioting between Malays and ethnic Chinese.

A source in the Special Branch, the police force's intelligence arm, said on Thursday that Hindraf's protests and allegations of ethnic cleansing at the hands of a Malay-dominated government had angered many Malays, who are all Muslims.

Police were keeping a close watch on Malay activists and mosques, the source told Reuters.
"This is a multiracial country and it takes little to upset the balance," said the source, who declined to be named.

But the opposition has accused the government of using the spectre of racial violence as an excuse to crack down on peaceful dissent, noting that police were enforcing a blanket ban on all forms of anti-government protest, regardless of the issue.

"We condemn these arrests," said Lim Guan Eng, head of the opposition Democratic Action Party.

"It is a desperate act of last resort and if the government has any evidence, it should charge them in an open court.

"We urge the government to seek national reconciliation, not confrontation with disaffected, marginalised and dispossessed Malaysians."

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