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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Malaysia's political knife act: theatre or threat?

Reuters (6/11/2007): In Malaysia, there are very few public meetings where people can turn up with a weapon -- but the nation's largest annual political gathering is one of them.

For the past three years, a leader of the main ruling party, which represents the ethnic Malay majority, gets the party's annual assembly underway by drawing a 2-ft-long (60-cm-long) ceremonial dagger, kissing it and then brandishing it in the air.

And each time, hundreds of party faithful inside the assembly hall have erupted into a cheer while, outside, many in Malaysia's large ethnic Chinese community have quietly cursed, convinced that the knife is metaphorically pointed at them.

"I don't think you bring in a weapon of war to a meeting where you claim to want to discuss and deliberate on nation-building policy," opposition politician Lim Guan Eng said after the latest knife-kissing episode on Tuesday.

"It has been used to threaten non-Malays."

The traditional Malay dagger, or keris, is a symbol of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which leads the multi-racial coalition that has ruled since independence 50 years ago, but it has also become a symbol of racial tensions.

Though Malaysia has been free of major race riots since 1969, when hundreds were killed, ethnic Chinese still flinch when they see a Malay politician waving the keris, rarely more so than at last year's assembly when its appearance stirred up hot words.

After UMNO Youth leader Hishammuddin Hussein unsheathed the keris last year, live on national television, some delegates urged him loudly to use it and some fiery speeches ensued.

One delegate was reported to have said by the Singapore Straits Times: "UMNO is willing to risk lives and bathe in blood to defend the race and religion. Don't play with fire. If they mess with our rights, we will mess with theirs."


This year, as the coalition strives to show unity in the run-up to possible early elections, things have gone differently.

First, UMNO's assembly is not being televised live.

And there were no such incendiary remarks on Tuesday when youth leader Hishammuddin, also education minister and chief keris-waver, pulled out his weapon, which had been paraded into the hall on a red cushion by men in Malay warrior costume.

"Don't worry about symbolism. Don't get carried away by racial extremism...," he said after lifting the keris skyward.

He described the ceremonial keris as a symbol of culture, sovereignty, power, dignity and even unity among all races.

"A keris is drawn to defend the race and the interest of the country, not only for the Malays but also to defend others in the country," he was quoted as saying by state news agency Bernama.

"No one should feel nervous or panicky...."

But many ethnic Chinese would prefer the keris stayed out of politics.

"It's not a symbol of justice as he claimed but a symbol of war to threaten the non-Malays," said Lim, secretary-general of the ethnic Chinese-backed Democratic Action Party.


Malaysia's ruling party scraps telecasts of congress amid racial concerns

AOL (25/10/2007): Malaysia's ruling party will forbid live telecasts of its upcoming annual congress, an official said, after speakers from the Malay Muslim majority fueled racial anxiety among the country's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities last year.

Radzi Sheikh Ahmad, secretary general of the United Malays National Organization, noted that broadcasts of the party's 2006 general assembly sparked controversy because some viewers were shocked that delegates used harsh rhetoric to debate race relations.

"We consider the sensitivities of everybody," Radzi told a media briefing late Thursday. "That is why we have decided there will be no live screenings" of this year's Nov. 5-9 congress.

UMNO is the dominant party in the ruling National Front coalition of multiracial political parties. It represents the Malays, who comprise about 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people. Ethnic Chinese make up about a quarter of the population and Indians nearly 10 percent.

UMNO delegates last year vowed to safeguard the status of Islam and affirmative action programs for Malays, sparking fear among minorities about their religious and economic rights.

Two speakers said Malays must be ready to fight "to the last drop of blood" to defend their rights, while others warned minorities not to make demands that tested the patience of Malays.

Open friction is rare between Malays and the Chinese and Indian minorities, whose faiths include Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism, despite frustrations over various issues.

Radzi said that some 2,500 delegates who are scheduled to attend this year's assembly would remain free to raise any topic, as long as they avoid insulting the monarchy or making legally questionable statements about unresolved court cases.

"We know how to behave. ... UMNO is very mature," Radzi said, stressing that the public should not be oversensitive about potentially fiery speeches.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is widely expected to use this year's congress to boost party unity ahead of general elections that most observers believe will be held before mid-2009.

Racially sensitive subjects include an affirmative action program instituted after deadly race riots in 1969 that give Malays privileges in sectors such as government jobs, bank loans, housing and state contracts for business opportunities to help them catch up with the wealthier Chinese.

Minority groups have sought concessions from Malays to roll back these privileges among others, such as granting secular courts authority to overturn verdicts by Islamic courts in cases where non-Muslims are involved.


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