Malaysian racial riots cast shadow after 40 years
by Beh Lih Yi
In the cafes of Kampung Baru, a sleepy enclave in the heart of Malaysia’s capital, older folk still have sharp memories of the nation’s deadliest race riots, which broke out there 40 years ago.
“I can see the people who were wielding machetes and burning vehicles. A large number of Chinese who tried to run away died,” said 58-year-old Wan, who was a high school student at the time of the May 13, 1969, tragedy.
“One Chinese man was killed in front of me. He was riding a motorbike when a machete hit him, he fell from the motorbike, stared at me and died,” he recalled as he sipped a cup of tea.
As the anniversary of the clashes between Muslim Malays and ethnic Chinese approaches, Kampung Baru remains much the same as it was during those days that have left deep scars on the national psyche.
Still dominated by the country’s majority Malays, Kampung Baru has preserved a traditional village feel, with wooden houses, neighbourhood mosques and children riding their bicycles to school along the low-rise streets.
As the capital Kuala Lumpur has grown up around it, it has become surrounded by skyscrapers and shopping centres but the community’s elders have always shunned such development.
To this day, Malaysians argue over what sparked the Kampung Baru riots, which broke out when the multicultural country was still finding its feet a decade after independence.
History books say that 196 people were killed and hundreds wounded in clashes triggered by a procession by the Chinese-led opposition parties, who were celebrating a strong performance in elections a few days before.
Their opponents planned their own parade, and rumours of racial violence sparked tit-for-tat killings that quickly spun out of control. A state of emergency was declared and it took months for the tensions to ease.
Allegations of a cover-up and accounts of much higher death tolls ensued. Sociologist Kua Kia Soong is one of those pushing for a truth commission to uncover the facts.
“Isn’t it shocking that nobody knows for certain how many people died? Is it 196 or 1,900?” said Kua, author of the controversial book “May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969.”
“There is a need for the truth to come out so people can be at peace with the facts of the incident while the dead can rest in peace,” said Kua, who argues the riots were a conspiracy to oust then-premier Tunku Abdul Rahman.
The incident remains a burning issue because it was used to justify the introduction of an affirmative action policy to close the wealth gap between Malays and ethnic Chinese, which was seen as a factor in the troubles.
The policy exists to this day, giving Malays benefits in terms of housing, education and investment, and has become increasingly resented by Malaysia’s minorities, who also include ethnic Indians.
The May 13 incident is still often cited by the coalition that has ruled since independence — to silence demands for these special privileges to be discarded, and to curb discussion on race-related issues.
“All these years May 13 has been used as a threat to non-Malays in the country when they try to challenge racial discriminatory policy, whenever they try to vocalise their civil rights,” Kua said.
A turning point came last year when elections handed the opposition its best ever result, winning five states and one-third of parliamentary seats in a stunning performance that nevertheless did not ignite any unrest.
“May 13 undoubtedly haunts the Malaysian psyche and is often used in general elections to try to frighten the people from exercising their electoral choice,” said opposition veteran Lim Kit Siang.
“The last general elections to a large extent showed that the ghost of May 13 — the fear that there can be another May 13 if the ruling UMNO party is not returned to absolute power — is being exorcised,” he said.
Many of those who lived through the events do not favour opening up old wounds.
“We should forget about the past, it is something that we don’t want to see happen again,” said Wan, a Malay born and bred in Kampung Baru, who admitted he joined the crowds looting shops after emergency rule was declared.
“There is no point in us looking back, it is already history. The government now should think how to forge stronger unity among different races,” he said as his old friend, Sulaiman, sat next to him nodding in agreement.
Sulaiman, who also declined to give his full name, recalled he was selling tickets for a Hindi movie at a cinema when chaos broke out. A number of Malays were killed there, including a pregnant woman.
“It is always difficult to discuss this issue again as it will stir up racial sentiment. As I see it now, we have no real problems among the races, we should continue to respect each other,” he said.
A signboard of Kampung Baru is seen in Kuala Lumpur. As the anniversay of the clashes between Muslim Malays and ethnic Chinese approaches, Kampung Baru remains much the same as it was during those days that have left deep scars on the national psyche.
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