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Racial tensions on rise in Malaysia

The destruction of Hindu temples in Malaysia is inflaming religious and racial tensions in the country.

india Updated: Jun 20, 2006 11:41 IST

The destruction of Hindu temples by authorities in multicultural Malaysia is inflaming religious tensions in a country which has long struggled to maintain ethnic harmony.

Rights groups and politicians say that anger is growing among the country's minority Hindu community as temples, many of historic value, are bulldozed at the rate of at least one every few weeks to make way for new developments.

Hindu groups have appealed to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to halt the destruction and respect the rights of religious minorities in mainly-Muslim Malaysia, but concern is growing the situation will become volatile.

"At the moment, devotees are pleading and crying, but eventually they will not plead and cry any more," said Waytha Moorthy, the chairman of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), which lobbies on behalf of affected temple groups.

"We are worried if people get emotional about it, they will resort to other means. They have come to us for help, but eventually we will also fail unless the government intervenes," he said.

Malaysia's 26 million people are roughly 60 per cent Muslim Malay, with mostly Hindu Indians making up eight per cent of the population and ethnic Chinese most of the remainder.

The country has thousands of Hindu temples and shrines, many built on private or plantation land by Indian migrant labourers before the country gained independence in 1957.

The land has since been acquired by local councils or state authorities, who argue the temples are illegal buildings and have been knocking them down.

Hindu groups say the nationwide destruction of temples has been going on for years, but that demolitions in the capital Kuala Lumpur and the states of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan have accelerated lately.

Kuala Lumpur City Hall, under fire for bulldozing temples with police assistance, said it had demolished three since February this year to make way for road projects and a low-cost housing development.

Another three are due to be demolished over the next few months but in consultation with Hindu groups over how it should take place, said city hall's deputy director-general, Mohamad Amin Abdul Aziz.

"The land belongs to the government and the government has to build roads, schools and bridges," Mohamad Amin told the agency.

"We are a liberal society and I respect all religions. I want them to have a temple of their own, but they should go through the proper channels," he said, adding groups had to build on land gazetted for temples or buy land privately.

But Hindu groups argue authorities should permanently relocate the temples, some of which are more than 100 years old, and are used by devotees from lower income groups who cannot afford to buy land.

In a sign of growing frustration, some 50 Hindus including women and children held a rare protest in front of City Hall late last month to complain their religious rights were being trampled.

TM Ramachandran, the Southeast Asia organiser for Hindu Sevai Sangam, a group that counsels young people, said Hindus were being "suppressed" and left little room to negotiate over temple relocations.

"More than being angry, we are very frustrated because we are also citizens of this country," said Ramachandran.

"We have been very, very tolerant for so many years with these things happening. They've really pushed us to the wall," he said.

The unrest over the demolitions follows the controversial Muslim burial in December of an ethnic Indian mountaineering hero, M Moorthy, over the protests of his Hindu wife who said he had never converted to Islam.

The incident raised ethnic tensions and accusations from Malaysia's religious minorities that their rights were being undermined by what they say is growing Islamic conservatism.

Human rights group Aliran has also warned the demolitions could ramp up religious and racial tensions.

After the Moorthy case, "such demolitions could also reinforce the feeling among members of cultural minorities that their democratic and religious space is slowly and unjustly being squeezed", it said in a statement.

S. Paranjothy, the deputy chief of the youth arm of the Gerakan party which is a member of Malaysia's ruling coalition, said he feared tensions over the demolitions would spill over into a repeat of previous communal violence.

The so-called 1978 Kerling incident saw Hindu devotees killing a group of five conservative Muslims who were caught desecrating a temple.

"You are pushing people and some of them may be fearful, but others may not tolerate this," he said.

"If they carry on like this, there will be a repeat of this. The other time it was only five that died, but the next time 50 or 100 may die. You never know, anything can happen."