Politicians linked to Malaysia's May 13 riots

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 May, 2007, 12:00am

1969 violence aimed at Chinese: academic


Declassified British embassy despatches suggest Malaysia's May 13 riots of 1969, in which hundreds of ethnic Chinese were killed, were organised by Malay political leaders and were not a spontaneous reaction to provocation, as conventional wisdom claims.


'It was a coup d'etat against Tunku,' said academic Kua Kia Soong, referring to independent Malaya's first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, a Malay aristocrat accused of being pro-Chinese.


Dr Kua released his findings yesterday on the anniversary of the riots after spending three months going over the documents at the Public Record Office in London.


He also released a 136-page book titled May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969.


The riots remain a hugely sensitive issue for Malaysia's ethnic Chinese community, which makes up about 30 per cent of the population. Dr Kua, the director of the Centre for Ethnic Studies, blamed then-deputy prime minister Abdul Razak and others for engineering the May 13 violence and subsequent coup which brought down Malaysia's old order.


'The riot was just a backdrop to seize power,' he said.


The documents reveal that Malay hoodlums were taken into Kuala Lumpur and allowed to rampage through Chinese areas, burning and killing non-Malays, said Dr Kua.


He said the despatches, between the mission in Kuala Lumpur and London, also showed that the multi-ethnic police force was impartial when putting down the riot - but the all-Malay army units stood by and let the mayhem happen.


Local Malays, the despatches said, were incensed and angered by the 'invasion of the Malay hoodlums' but were unable to stop the killing.


Officially about 260 people, mostly Chinese, were killed, with many suffering gunshot wounds. About 6,000 were injured and hundreds of buildings were burnt down.


One British Foreign Office document dated May 15, 1969, succinctly concludes that the riots were organised to 'formalise Malay dominance, sideline the Chinese and shelve the Tunku' government.


Another document dated May 17 from the High Commission to London said: 'The tragedy is immense. From our windows we see burning, destruction on a wide scale and bodies in rivers, fighting, machine-gun fire on crowds and above all a sense of fear in what a week ago was a relatively happy city.'


Within days Abdul Rahman had been stripped of all powers and he resigned a year later. Razak took immediate control, suspended parliament, set up a National Operations Council and took full charge. He restored parliamentary rule in 1974, however.


Most Malaysians reject the official version of the events, that non-Malay politicians who won big in the 1969 general election had provoked Malays into rioting.


'We all knew that the riots were engineered but now we have the evidence ... the documents to prove it,' said academic Syed Husin Ali.


'The government should allow a formal independent inquiry into the event and let the people know what really happened,' he said. 'We don't even know the names of the victims or where they are buried. How do we honour them?' he said.


Yap Swee Seng, executive director of the Suaram human rights NGO, said: 'This event has been hanging over us like a dagger ... it's time the people are told the truth.'


His calls were echoed by rights activist Elizabeth Wong. 'We are all Malaysians, we need closure of this sad event. Let us all learn the truth and carry forward.' The 'May 13 incident', as school text books refer to it, is rarely discussed publicly.


Periodically, government officials raise the spectre of May 13 as a warning of what could happen if 'Malay tolerance' collapses.


Dr Kua's revelations come at a low point in Malay-Chinese relations, after Chinese academics questioned the need to continue 'Malays-first' affirmative action policies.


Ironically, the government also chose yesterday's 38th anniversary of the riots to launch a comprehensive five-year plan to close the race gap and end racial enmity. The National Action Plan for Unity and Integration was launched by the Malay king.


The government has promised to promote respect for the law, racial tolerance, religious understanding and fairness and justice.