The Kuala Lumpur Food Not Bombs– serving once a week for only about a year now– was still enough inspiration for visitors from nearby Bangkok to return home and start one themselves. I checked them out as well while visiting Malaysia and was impressed by the activity going on around them. A year of unexpected protests in 2007 hit this Muslim country near the equator. The protests are not welcomed despite the establishment’s claim that the country is a democracy. Yet 2008 promises a dramatic unraveling that will put the ball in people’s hands to create effective change in the streets as the state goes through spasms trying to maintain their legacy of inequalities.
In 1957, the British relinquished control of colonial Malay, but their influence remained. This may be a surface level boon for the traveler limping along with the English language, readily used by the diverse populace of Malay Muslims, Chinese and immigrant Hindus. But other methods of suppression and race separation the great British empire practiced are continued by the government today. Though the country recently celebrated its 50 years of Merdeka (liberty), the government has not rescinded the nefarious Internal Security Act (ISA) which Americans would recognize as similar to the PATRIOT Act.
The ISA rationalizes the police grabbing any person, foreign or domestic, under the pretense of preserving order. Prisoners are held up to two years without charges or trial. But in fact, the ISA usually applies to people who pit themselves against the government’s interests. In 1985, villagers from the Perak region protested the construction of a radioactive dump near their homes. Several people were detained using the ISA, forcing people to fight the project in court for nearly ten years. In 1998, the ISA was used against Anwar Ibrahim, an opposition member in the government, setting off widespread protests with the slogan “Reformasi”.
Many of the people I encountered remarked on the treatment given to protestors. In early January 2008, a permit was denied to hold a candlelight vigil protesting the ISA on a Saturday night at Merdeka Square. The offical reason was that the vigil would create a traffic jam; however, the square is about 3 football fields long and the attendance would only number a few hundred. Organizers pushed ahead anyway and, the police were right, traffic problems resulted. But they were due to sloppy police action–rolling a riot tank on the candle holders, dousing them with water cannons and chasing them with batons onto nearby streets.
The heavy-handed response may be a symptom of spiraling forces that neither human nor government can contain. Both usually exacerbate the crisis as they attempt to control the situation.
This past year, the Hindu Rights Acton Force (HINDRAF) also initiated protests. The primary motivation was to stop the demolition of temples and shrines. The demands would soon include challenging racial discrimination and reforming the electoral system. The government’s response was to put the HINDRAF leaders in prison under the ISA. This fueled 20,000 people to rally on November 25th, making the government release all but five of the detainees. By late January, the government was purposing new laws to limit and deport visiting Hindu workers, a remedy that will only create more street protests. The Hindi population are living in perpetual poverty and as second class citizens. They work the most undesirable jobs, if they can get one at all, that is. They go to schools that are underfunded by the government, thereby ensuring a life of menial labor and destitution.
This past year also saw the shrinking of the country’s primary crop and staple, palm oil. Greedy western European countries have discovered it as a source of fuel for their cars, thereby denying food and livelihood to much of the Malaysian populace. Bloody upheavals in Indonesia have already started in the new year over similar palm oil shortages; how long before they come to Malaysia is uncertain. A regional flour shortage and soaring gasoline prices will only increase the potential for agitation.
In the eastern part of the country, where some of the world’s oldest jungles remain, indigenous tribes fought displacement from their ancestral land to build a dam. The Penan tribe lost and are in another battle against a timber company threatening to deforest their new home in the jungle in the Barram region. The land they inhabit is evidently a coveted source of wealth for corporations. The tribe’s leader, Lony Kerong, suddenly went missing and was found dead days later. This probably shortened the time until indigenous people are forced to give up living on the land and move to the decaying cities.
Much of the Malaysian population has yet to take to the street or to join the growing protests. People barely exist, spending too much time working useless jobs while being inundated by shopping centers and television induced entertainment. Meanwhile, life and death struggles of immigrants, indigenous people and the extremely poor are distant and obscure. Sometimes the issues surface to public consciousness but the government is doing its best to keep them submerged.
The beginning of 2008 will see elections in Malaysia and many peope don’t see the Muslim government budging much from their seat, though they may fall asleep in it on occasions. I accompanied protesters recently as we traveled to the Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s base of operations. The small group of 10 protestors demanded he step down, since he keeps dozing at public functions, offering him a pillow as a retirement gift. I wondered as contemplating the 30 soldiers surrounding the protest, if this is a symptom of having dinosaurs in the leadership of government offices.
Malaysia is not alone in trying to hide the crumbling facade of free elections. In 2007, protests in nearby countries like Pakistan included lawyers throwing molotovs and the assasination of opposition leaders. The unrest and shooting of protestors in Myanmar will testify how dictators like General Than Shwe may age, but they do not step down easily and without the spilling of blood. To the south, former Indonesian military dictator Suharto rots in his deathbed having the legacy of one of the most bloody governments of the 20th century. When he stepped down in the late 90’s, rowdy protests demanded changes that still have not come. In nearby Thailand the former Prime Minister Thaskin, who was ousted in a military coup, is making inroads to regaining influence in the government. This is disturbing fortune, since he implemented a heinous war on drugs in which over a thousand people were executed without a trial. His policies sparked an insurgency in the south where Thailand borders Malaysia. Clearly people are not happy with the distribution of power.
Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, holds the Merdeka Square where traffic will likely be interrupted by swelling protests and standoffs with the police. A growing crime rate spurred the city to promise 600 more cops on the streets. Hopefully they will be ineffectual in stopping the political graffiti sprouting up around town or the new Critical Mass that recently started. These may be small changes and only intially affect a fraction of people, as Food Not Bombs does. But small acts are a testimony that in times of disarray and panic it is essential we don’t let the problems created by multinational corporations and Ivy League ideologies bog us down. We just need to do something simple and immediate.