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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Malaysia's ruling party tells ethnic minorities not to fear loss of rights

IHT (6/11/2007): Malaysia's ruling party urged ethnic minorities Tuesday to respect the leadership of the Malay Muslim majority and not fear any loss of their religious and economic rights.

The United Malays National Organization, which spearheads the multiethnic National Front ruling coalition, is holding its annual congress this week amid tensions over the recent demolition of a Hindu temple by authorities — an incident that reignited concerns among the Chinese and Indian minorities about the protection of their welfare.

For the third consecutive year at the congress, UMNO Youth Chief Hishammuddin Hussein unsheathed a Malay traditional dagger and kissed it, defying criticism by minorities that the practice symbolizes aggression.

Hishammuddin defended his action, claiming it represents a pledge to "defend the interests of the nation, not only for the Malays but also the other races that shelter in this nation."

"Don't create imaginary enemies and don't be terrified of shadows," Hishammuddin said in a speech. "Don't be too caught up with racial sentiments that you lose the respect built thus far for the sacrifices of the Malays."

Open friction is rare between Malays — who comprise some 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people — and the minorities, whose faiths include Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism.

But frustrations have grown among minorities in recent years over a wide range of issues, including accusations by activists that authorities are unfairly destroying non-Muslim places of worship.

Authorities tore down a decades-old temple in a squatter settlement in central Selangor state last week, triggering rare criticism by the Malaysian Indian Congress, which is one of UMNO's biggest allies in the National Front.

Other racially sensitive subjects include an affirmative action program that gives Malays privileges in government jobs, bank loans and housing, as well as the inability of secular courts to overturn verdicts by Islamic courts in cases where non-Muslims are involved.

Hishammuddin did not highlight any specific grievance, but stressed that Malays "have never made a fuss about what is not within their rights, but they provide space and opportunities to everyone."

Malaysia's politics are built on a unique, race-based power-sharing arrangement that gives UMNO virtual control over top posts in the government, supported by parties representing the Chinese, Indians and other ethnic minorities.

Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz, who heads the UMNO women's wing, urged members to emphasize national unity to ensure a big victory in the next national elections. Polls are not due until 2009, but Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is UMNO's president, is widely expected to call elections before mid-2008.

"Small groups should not be allowed to jeopardize the interests of the majority by disrupting stability, unity and understanding among the multiracial population," Rafidah said. (AP)


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