KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s ethnic Indian community staged its biggest anti-government street protest on Sunday when more than 10,000 protesters defied tear gas and water cannon to voice complaints of racial discrimination.
The sheer size of the protest, called by a Hindu rights group, represents a political challenge for the government as it heads toward possible early elections in the next few months.
Ethnic Indians from around the country swarmed into Kuala Lumpur for the rally, despite a virtual lock-down of the capital over the previous three days and warnings from police and the government that people should not take part.
“Malaysian Indians have never gathered in such large numbers in this way...,” said organizer P. Uthaya Kumar, of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf).
“They are frustrated and have no job opportunities in the government or the private sector. They are not given business licenses or places in university,” he said, adding that Indians were also incensed by some recent demolitions of Hindu temples.
Riot police fired at the protesters with sustained volleys of tear gas and jets of water laced with an eye-stinging chemical, but it took more than five hours to finally clear the streets of downtown Kuala Lumpur, by then littered with empty gas canisters.
Veteran journalists and analysts could not recall a bigger anti-government protest by ethnic Indians, who make up about 7 percent of the population, although some said a larger rally had been held over internal Indian politics in the late 1980s.
Political columnist Zainon Ahmad said the protest would shake the Indian community’s establishment party, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), a junior member of the ruling coalition.
“The MIC is severely challenged on this matter,” he said.
MIC leader S. Samy Vellu, who is also works minister, denied the protest spelt trouble for his party. “We represent the Indian community and will remain so,” he said in a statement.
But Vellu, who has himself voiced unease over a recent Hindu temple demolition by local authorities outside the capital, added: “There is still a lot to be done for the Indians and we will continue with our struggle.”
Many protesters complained of a lack of educational and business opportunities, saying a government affirmative-action policy in favor of majority ethnic Malays had marginalized them.
Malays make up about 60 percent of the population and, according to official data, remain the poorest group by some average measures such as household income. Opposition groups say the most severe cases of poverty exist among Indians.
Brought over as indentured labor from the late 1800s by colonial ruler Britain, Indians worked Malaya’s rubber estates. These estates were later broken up, forcing many unskilled Indian workers into poverty in the city.
Ostensibly, Sunday’s protesters wanted to hand a petition to the British embassy in support of a legal claim by Hindraf for reparations from Britain for colonial-era abuses. But Hindraf said the protest was also aimed at the Malaysian government.
“We are here for our rights,” one protester told Reuters as he sat cross-legged on the road.
“The British brought our forefathers here 150 years ago,” he added. “Whatever the government is supposed to give us, to look after our welfare, well, they have failed.”
Police fired tear gas outside Kuala Lumpur’s iconic twin towers and five-star hotels. Curious tourists ventured out to take a look but rushed back inside once the gas stung their eyes.
At the Batu Caves, a Hindu place of worship just outside the capital, police clashed with 2,000 protesters early on Sunday after barring entry to the temple.
Many Malaysians, including an Indian Muslim group, opposed the rally, fearing it could spark violence. Malaysia has not experienced a major race riot since 1969, but many seasoned politicians fear racial and religious tensions could flare again.
At least one policeman was injured when protesters hit him with crash helmets, one officer said. Organizers said 400 had been arrested and 19 injured. Police said they had no figures.
It was the second crackdown this month on a demonstration critical of the government, as speculation grows that Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will call snap elections early next year. The next election is not due until May 2009.
Early in November, about 10,000 protesters demanding electoral reform defied a police ban to rally in the capital.
Additional reporting by Mark Bendeich, Jalil Hamid, Naveen Thukral and Liau Y-Sing; editing by Roger Crabb