KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - 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.
The deputy internal security minister said the five, from the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), had been detained for up to two years because their actions had threatened national security.
Last month, Hindraf stunned the government by bringing more than 10,000 ethnic Indians onto the streets of the capital to complain of racial discrimination.
“They can be held for two years for sedition and also for carrying out activities that threaten national security,” Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharom was quoted as saying by state news agency Bernama.
One of those detained was a Hindraf leader, lawyer P. Uthayakumar, who had already been charged with sedition for alleging that Malaysia practiced “ethnic cleansing” of Indians, who 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 a woman called Shantha, who answered Uthayakumar’s mobile phone after news of the detentions and said she was his secretary.
The Hindraf Web site named the other detainees as M. Manoharan, R. Kengadharan, B. Ganabathi Rao and Vasanthan.
“We appeal to all our supporters to remain calm and do not listen to any rumors or untruth that may be spread to break our unity,” said a statement on the Web site.
“We call upon all supporters to organize nationwide prayers in temples, houses etc. for the speedy release of our leaders.”
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who came to power four years ago promising more transparent and open government, had said earlier this week he would have no trouble signing a detention order to ensure public security and national stability.
The five were charged under Section 8 (1) of the ISA, which provides for a two-year detention, police said. The detention can be extended further at the minister’s discretion and cannot be challenged in court.
Malaysian rights group Suaram said 84 people were currently being held under the ISA. One man was detained for 17 years before he was released.
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 specter 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.
Additional reporting by Jalil Hamid; writing by Mark Bendeich; editing by Roger Crabb