By Anil Netto
In apparent response to recent
opposition demonstrations, a Malay group with links to the United
Malays National Organization (Umno), the dominant partner of Malaysia's
ruling coalition, is planning a large gathering in the capital
this Sunday afternoon, February 4.
The group calling itself the
Malay Action Front (BBM) says the aim of the rally is to promote
Malay unity and that it would be peaceful and apolitical. The
rally bears the theme "Tak akan Melayu hilang di dunia" (The Malays
will not disappear from the Earth).
Organizers say they want to
gather peacefully "for the Malays to realize their rights and
privileges" and they hope to draw a crowd of 10,000. The group
has invited all Malay political leaders, including those from
Malay-based opposition parties, and non-governmental organizations
to the gathering.
But observers have pointed out
that the logo of the gathering - an outstretched hand holding
a "kris" (the traditional Malay dagger) set against a red backdrop
with the words Melayu Bersatu (Malays Unite) brings back disturbing
memories of 1987, the last time ethnic tension gripped Kuala Lumpur.
That year, the youth wing of
Umno held a rally to forcefully assert Malay supremacy in the
wake of protests against corruption and controversial government
policies, including those related to Chinese education. Some 15,000
Malays packed a stadium voicing threats and militant action against
the political demands of non-Malays. The turnout fuelled enthusiasm
for an even bigger protest - a "unity rally" - to more strongly
assert Malay political dominance. But the authorities used the
mounting ethnic tension to justify a sweeping crackdown against
dissent and to call off the rally.
The opposition Free Anwar
Campaign has condemned the use of the kris in the publicity
posters for Sunday's gathering. Its website says an unsheathed
kris symbolizes war or attack. "In the late 1980s, the Umno Youth
leader then warned the Chinese that Umno's kris 'will be soaked
in Chinese blood'," says the website. According to Malay folklore,
the kris, the centerpiece of Umno's flag and emblem, is also associated
with supernatural powers.
Opposition activists have already
lodged a police report against the gathering, saying that it would
jeopardize national integration. The report alleges that the use
of the kris in the publicity posters reveals the extremist stance
of the organizers. "This attitude can create a tense situation
and panic among the other races," it says. It adds that the problems
in the country are not caused by Malay disunity but by corruption,
abuse of power and mismanagement.
The venue for the gathering,
Kampung Baru, seems an unfortunate choice. In 1969, Kampung Baru
was at the epicenter of ethnic riots that broke out between Malays
and non-Malays following a general election result that saw Malay
political dominance eroded.
Umno has been trying to shore
up waning support among the Malays since a by-election setback
last November in Kedah, the home state of Prime Minister Mahathir
Mohamad. That defeat shook the party and prompted it to organize
"Malay unity" talks with the opposition. But the National Justice
Party (Keadilan), headed by Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of
ousted deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, turned down an invitation
to take part in the talks, arguing that it was a multi-ethnic
party. The Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) wants the talks widened
to focus on national issues and said it would not take part if
Umno expects it to join the ruling coalition.
Critics say Umno's focus on
Malay unity is aimed at derailing the broad-based multi-ethnic
"reformasi" movement that has demanded an end to corruption and
abuse of power. "Any campaign to 'unite' the Malays at this stage
could well undermine the larger quest for justice and fair play
within the community itself," says academic Chandra Muzaffar,
the deputy president of Keadlin.
Many Malays, including the majority
of the Malay middle and even upper classes, he claims, have become
very conscious of injustices within the community perpetrated
by a section of the Malay elite.
"For the first time in modern
Malay political history, a lot of Malays who would otherwise be
regarded as beneficiaries of the 'New Economic Policy' and the
Umno-led government are critical of the abuse of power, the corruption,
the authoritarianism and simply, the arrogance associated with
the Mahathir regime."
Chandra says the growing political
consciousness "can develop into a mammoth force within the Malay
community to incorporate sectors which hitherto have not been
touched by the reformasi struggle and expand beyond the community
to embrace the Chinese and Indians on the peninsula and the Kadazans
and Dayaks in Sabah and Sarawak as well, within the next two or
The opposition win in the November
by-election, Chandra maintains, was evidence that this was beginning
to happen, but he warns that such a multi-ethnic movement for
social justice could be checkmated through appeals to ethnic unity,
using "the emotional pull and power behind the idea of Malay unity".
And that appears to be exactly
what Mahathir is attempting.
(Special to Asia Times Online)