KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) – Malaysians typically sit and gripe about the government while sipping tea in safe sidewalk cafes. Few want to protest in public and face possible arrest.
That could be changing.
About 20,000 minority ethnic Indians clashed on the streets with the Kuala Lumpur police for seven hours in November to demand equal rights and a fairer share of national resources. They dispersed amid clouds of tear gas and water cannons. Some 250 people were briefly detained and five protest organizers are in jail under a law that allows indefinite detention without charges or trial.
"It was a watershed event," said S. Nagarajan of the Education, Welfare and Research Foundation, a nonprofit group that represents impoverished ethnic Indians. "It showed that Malaysians have overcome the fear of authorities. Even we were surprised by the scale and the spirit of the people."
Emboldened by the impact of the Nov. 25 demonstration, ethnic Indians have become increasingly vocal with claims that they are marginalized in this multiracial country. They claim that the Malaysian Indian Congress, the third largest party in the ruling National Front coalition, has become corrupt and has not done enough to improve the situation for Indians.
Ethnic Malays, who make up 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people, control the government and all state-owned enterprises. Ethnic Chinese, at 25 percent of the population, dominate private business. Ethnic Indians, who make up 8 percent, remain at the bottom of Malaysia's economic and political hierarchy.
In response to the unrest, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said he would form a panel to draw up anti-poverty measures for all races. He did not elaborate on the plan.
Abdullah is widely expected to hold general elections in March, a year before they are required. The National Front — which has been in power since Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957 — is easily expected to return to power, even with the MIC facing widespread anger from its constituents.
The Nov. 25 demonstration was followed by a five-day hunger strike in January by a group of ethnic Indians to demand the release of the five activists in jail. The five men also fasted until one of them was hospitalized with dehydration.
But the Indian anger was conveyed most emphatically during the religious festival of Thaipusam on Jan. 23. Every year, more than a million Indians gather at the Batu Caves temple, which is managed by the MIC, for daylong rituals. This year, most people stayed away from Batu Caves in protest, and instead gathered at another temple in neighboring Klang town.
This newfound boldness and the unusual outpouring of anti-government dissent has shaken the foundations of Malaysia's reputation as a stable nation where three disparate races — Malays, Chinese and Indians — live in peace.
"It is easy for such a rally to become a racial issue or elicit responses from other races and evolve into a major conflict," said Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said.
Behind this concern is fear that overt ethnic tensions could scare away investors who form the bedrock of Malaysia's booming economy.
The extraordinary street violence in late November followed a demonstration Nov. 10 by about 30,000 opposition activists to demand electoral reforms. In September, 1,000 lawyers marched to the prime minister's office to demand judicial progress.
Analysts warn that anger among disgruntled Malaysians is reaching a boiling point over discrimination against minorities, lack of religious freedoms, political interference in the judiciary, unfair elections and corruption.
"It is a cry for attention," said Abdul Rahman Embong, a prominent sociologist who teaches at the National University of Malaysia. "We cannot take the issue of disaffection by various people for granted."
Besides complaining in coffee shops and grumbling on blogs, Malaysians have few avenues for venting, as the state controls the media and does not allow open discussion on racial issues.
Public gatherings of more than four people require permits; anyone deemed a threat to public order faces arrest.
The most worrisome problem for the government is the sense of disenfranchisement among ethnic Indians.
Most Indians are descendants of indentured ethnic Tamil laborers brought by British colonials in the 19th century to work in rubber plantations. They were poor then, living in shacks and earning daily wages. Not much has changed.
In fact, the Indians say they are worse off now, thanks to a 1971 affirmative action policy favoring Malays in jobs, education, government contracts and businesses. The ethnic Chinese grumble too, but they are less affected and most have flourished in private enterprise, controlling a large part of the national economy.
"We want the minority Indians to be given their basic rights. If they can give us two or three (real concessions), we are willing to keep our mouth shut," P. Waytha Moorthy, who organized the Nov. 25 demonstration, told The Associated Press.
"That's what I don't understand: Why isn't the government conceding? We are not asking for super rights. We are asking for basic rights," he said in an interview in London, where he lives in self-imposed exile, fearing arrest like his five colleagues.
The government denies Indians are discriminated against, and says their living standards have vastly improved.
Government officials cite statistics to prove their case: The average monthly household income of Indians in 2004 was $1,000, compared to the $775 earned by Malays; about 2.9 percent of Indians lived below poverty line in 2004 compared to 39.2 percent in 1970.
But community leaders and activists dispute the official figures, saying they understate the poverty level among ethnic Indians and do not reflect reality: 90 percent of Indian workers are low-skilled laborers with little education who are treated with contempt by those in authority.
Indians are also stereotyped as alcoholics and gangsters.
According to Nagarajan, Indians make up 5 percent of the civil service now compared to 21.5 percent in 1969. Only about 1.2 percent of corporate equity has been in the hands of Indians for the past three decades.
"The anger has been building up," said Nagarajan. "The state has been arrogant and a bully, not realizing that even the marginalized can react."