Traveling on an air-conditioned bus along Malaysia’s North-South Highway to Kuala Lumpur several months ago could not sensibly be compared to the freedom ride from Selma to Montgomery. But for the dark-skinned man seated near me, it could well have been a similar historic journey. He was a Malaysian activist of Tamil-Indian descent traveling from Johor Bahru to the capital to lend political support to five Indian lawyers detained indefinitely without trail under Malaysia’s draconian internal security law. The lawyers are leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force or HINDRAF, which led a demonstration of 20,000 Indians in the capital last November. Four of them, including HINDRAF legal advisor M. Manoharan, campaigned this year for seats in Parliament from their jail cells and won. The outcome of the March 8th general elections was a shock. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s National Front coalition was expected to win hands-down, but with far less Indian support than in 2004 when it received close to 80 percent of Indian votes. What happened instead, due largely to HINDRAF, was the toppling of the old guard. The group’s principal aim was to weaken Badawi’s allies in the Malaysian Indian Congress, whom many Indians believe did little to address racial discrimination leveled at Tamil-Indian communities. Indian resentment had been building up for decades over what many see as substandard housing, separate but unequal education, and, until the practice was recently halted, the demolition of half a dozen Hindu temples.
As a rule, Indians in Malaysia do not consider themselves "black" in any Westernized racialized sense of the word. But the man on the bus was the color of charcoal. He and fellow mainly dark-skinned Indians form less than ten percent of the country’s twenty-five million people. Chinese make up twenty-four percent. The majority are Malays, who benefit from the New Economic Policy enacted in the 1970s that grants them special preferences in education, housing and civil service employment. The Tamil man on the bus compared Malay dominance to white skin privilege in the United States. That may be overstating the degree to which Malays are favored, but as I traveled from city to city documenting the treatment of Indians,I encountered a set of "black experiences" not unlike my own.
Like "your 1963 March on Washington," said Giwi Katharah of the Tamil Foundation, an NGO representing the educational interests of Malaysia’s Indians, "the (November 25th) rally woke up a traditionally passive population that’s been tolerant too long of their second class citizenship. It gave Tamils a common sense of purpose."
On a former rubber plantation not far from the capital, I walked through a muddy, mosquito inhabited field to speak with a 43-year-old woman named Shantie. Her family, along with fifty others, is being evicted from the land harvested by her grandfather and his father before that. The tiny Tamil plantation school is slated to be rebuilt on a plot of land abutting a cemetery. That was the final straw for Shantie, who told me she had never protested anything until she was told to leave her home. "I never get proper schooling for my children, and I do not want to leave my land, so I joined demonstrations on November 25th. The tear gas, the water hoses. I could not breathe. If government consider Indian rights than we can see our future."
Another black woman a long time ago told me something along those same lines. One night in Detroit, while watching grainy TV images of civil rights activists being bitten by police dogs, my mother decided then and there to take part in her first demonstration that was scheduled downtown a week later in support of Freedom Riders down south. She said it was for us–her children. A few years later, in 1968, our neighborhood went up in smoke with news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It was a turning point in my young life, as I set out to report on race as a direct consequence of that period.
The worst race riots in Malaysia’s history had a similar impact on M. Kulasegaran, an Indian MP from Ipoh. The violence of May 13, 1969 pitted Malays known as Bumiputra or "sons of the soil" against the economically dominant Chinese. Indians for the most part stayed on the sidelines. But Kulasegaran was picked up by police the next day while out selling biscuits. When his mother arrived to pluck him from the police station, he said all he saw was "powerlessness in her eyes." That was the spark for his life-long obsession with politics, culminating in his election to Parliament thirty years later. Today Kulasegaran is part of the main Indian opposition, which has seen its influence grow since the general election. "Those days when we would go and speak and get one hundred people is over. Now the minimum that show up to hear us is one thousand to two thousand people."
The now frequent Tamil demonstrations have triggered a backlash from the Malay majority. Government critics and editorial writers for the two major newspapers accuse HINDRAF and its allies of trying to re-ignite the fires of 1969. Tamil leaders in turn have accused the government of fomenting "ethnic cleansing," though I saw nothing to suggest the existence of such a policy. Still, the fact that many Indians believe this to be true should be of concern to the Malaysian government, which has worked hard over its 51 years of independence to cultivate a worldwide image of tolerance and racial harmony. That idyllic projection is now threatened by activists who say they will continue to turn out Tamil communities in a show of force. A Tamil academic, Dr. S. Nagarajan, said in the same way that the 1963 march on Washington embarrassed the US into enforcing basic constitutional rights, Indians hope to use international media attention to force Malaysia to live up to its egalitarian creed.
In the aftermath of the March 8th general elections, HINDRAF leaders are looking to build a permanent grassroots opposition to the Malay and Indian political status quo in the form of an organization they call Makkal Sakthi or Peoples Power. Like many African Americans, some even dream of one day having a "black" president. Says MP Kulasegaran, "There is a new civil rights movement here. And I believe some changes can take place. It’s like Barack Obama says, ‘yes, we can.‘"
But the wishes of most ordinary Tamils are far more modest. Shantie, for one, says she simply wants well-built schools that are situated nowhere near cemeteries or any other marker for the dead.
Phillip Martin is a correspondent for PRI’s The World, reporting on social conditions surrounding skin color in a special series of international reports called "The Color Initiative," which is funded in part by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.