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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Malaysia's Abdullah appeals for racial tolerance

AOL (7/11/2007): Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on Wednesday sought to defuse growing ethnic tension in this multi-racial country, appealing for tolerance and understanding as talks of an early election grow.

Fifty years after independence, Malaysia continues to be dogged by communal issues that threaten to derail the fragile peace it has worked hard to maintain since a deadly 1969 race riot.

"The harmony between the various communities and religions in Malaysia is not an optional luxury -- it is a necessity. We have no other choice," Abdullah said in his opening speech at the ruling United Malays National Organization's three-day annual assembly that began Wednesday.

Just days before the meeting, Abdullah, who is also UMNO president, was forced to intervene to quell anger among ethnic Indians over the demolition of a century-old Hindu temple that was built on squatters' land.

Over a dozen residents were arrested and many more injured in the scuffle between enforcement officers and residents during the demolition process. Critics accused the authorities of acting in a high-handed manner and infringing on the freedom of religion in this predominantly Muslim country.

It has led to a rare show of protest from the Malaysian Indian Congress, UMNO's partner in the ruling 14-party National Front coalition.

Prior to this, non-Malays had been unhappy over what they viewed as Malay aggression when UMNO symbolically brandished the keris, a Malay traditional dagger, at the annual meeting two years ago and pledged to defend Malays' special status in the country.

Malaysia's minorities, mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians, are mostly Christians, Hindus, Buddhists or Sikhs. They have long complained of being marginalized as Islam is stamped into every sphere of everyday life. They are also sore over the affirmative action policy that accords Malays special privileges in areas from scholarships to government contracts.

The UMNO annual meeting, attended by over 2,500 delegates, is seen as the last before an expected early general election. Political watchers are predicting one to be called by the first quarter of next year even though the current five-year term is not due to expire until April 2009.

Abdullah appealed to UMNO's 3 million members to be sensitive to the feelings of other races and for the essentially race-based parties in the National Front coalition to stop harping on racial issues.

"The time for championing parochial interests is over. Issues must be addressed on the basis of the interests of the nation and the Malaysian people as a whole," he said in a speech that was telecast live nationwide.

"It must be stressed that every action will cause a reaction. The disrespect and extremism shown by one party will elicit a similar response...therefore if we want our religion to be respected and understood, let us, in UMNO, show exemplary behavior by respecting the followers of other religions and their needs," he added.

He also called for restraint among the enforcement agencies.

"Overzealous enforcement can give Islam a negative image," Abdullah said.

On the other hand, he stressed that "other communities must appreciate the sensitivities of the Malays. Basic matters relating to the sanctity of religion, beliefs and practices, Malay interests and the social contract between the communities are sacred to us and should not be raised."

MIC chief Samy Vellu, who attended UMNO's opening ceremony, said the entire Indian community is only seeking equal treatment.

"We respect the Malays, we respect the Chinese. We do not highlight anything related to race, but we highlight problems that we face in rising on an equal level with other races," he told reporters.

Despite the issue, he maintained that MIC would remain in the National Front "until we die." (Kyodo)


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