Malaysia police fire tear gas to halt Indian protest

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Kuala Lumpur, Nov 25: Malaysian police today used tear gas and water cannon on Sunday to quell a street protest by more than 5,000 ethnic Indians, the second crackdown this month on a demonstration critical of the government.

Thousands defied official warnings to stay away from a planned rally in central Kuala Lumpur called by a Hindu rights group to draw attention to complaints of government discrimination against the minority ethnic Indian community.

At least one policeman was injured after protesters, wielding motorcycle helmets as weapons, clashed with riot police. Protesters also threw bottles and drink cans at police in a standoff outside the capital's iconic twin towers.

''We are here for our rights,'' one protester told to the sources. ''The British brought our forefathers here 150 years ago.

Whatever the government is supposed to give us, to look after our welfare, well, they have failed.'' Despite tight security, some ethnic Indians gathered a few hundred metres from the British embassy, ostensibly to call on the former colonial ruler to make reparations for bringing Indians to Malaysia as indentured labour just over a century ago.

Some ethnic Indians, who make up about 7 percent of the population, complain that they are marginalised in terms of employment and business opportunities by a government dominated by politicians from the majority race, the ethnic Malays.

The group had promised to hold a peaceful rally in the capital today but the government had warned ethnic Indians not to participate, saying it could stoke racial tension.

On Friday, police arrested three Indians from the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), charging them under Malaysia's colonial-era Sedition Act for making what the authorities called seditious speeches at a recent rally outside the capital.

Today, about 5,000 ethnic Indian men, some carrying Malaysian flags and others holding placards, gathered near a normally busy intersection in central Kuala Lumpur as dozens of police trucks and hundreds of riot police stood guard. A police helicopter hovered overhead.

Some shouted ''No democracy in Malaysia, no human rights in Malaysia''. Others held placards that read: ''We too fought for the independence of this country. Why neglect our rights?'' Police fired water cannon laced with chemicals, drove back crowds and chased protesters into nearby buildings.

One protester, K K Krishna, said ethnic Indians were far under-represented in Malaysian universities. ''Why is that -- are Indians stupid?'' he said.

Fu Ah Kiow, Deputy Minister for Internal Security, was quoted as saying the government might even invoke the draconian Internal Security Act if national security was at stake, although that would be a last resort.

''Priority would be given to maintaining public order,'' the Sunday Star newspaper quoted him as saying. ''The impression that they are hoping to paint is that the government does not give an opportunity to the people to express their views.'' Outside the twin towers, police chased protesters down side streets and fired tear gas to disperse the crowds, sending curious tourists scurrying out of hotels to take a look.

Many, like engineer Sara Vicriman, travelled from out of town to attend the protest.

''They are threatening us like a dog,'' said Vicriman, who is from the northern state of Penang. ''They don't want to give education places for Indians, they don't want to give any opportunities for Indians to do any business.'' Malaysiakini, an independent news Web site, said scores of protesters had also gathered at Batu Caves, a Hindu place of worship and tourist spot, just outside the capital.

Police had taken the unusual step of securing a court order preventing anyone from attending the rally. Offenders, including journalists, could face more serious penalties than would be the case under laws against illegal assembly.

Malaysia bans public assemblies of more than five people without a police permit. In practice, police deny permits to anti-government protests but often issue them for protests aimed at foreign governments, such as the United States.

The ethnic Indian group's core complaint, that the current government has done little to better the community's standard of living, has riled the administration. Only two weeks ago it cracked down on a protest by about 10,000 people demanding electoral reform.

''We don't support street demonstrations,'' said S. Samy Vellu, leader of the country's main Indian ruling political party. ''This is an opposition ploy to smear the government's name.''

REUTERS
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