Malaysian officials on Tuesday convened a high-level security council meeting after two consecutive days of violence near Kuala Lumpur, while Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad strongly pushed back against suggestions the troubles had a racial undertone.
The clashes near a Hindu temple in the state of Selangor have been linked to a dispute between the 147-year-old institution and a developer who claimed to have acquired the land for RM1.5 million, although it is unclear to whom the proceeds were channelled.
The temple, slated to be relocated to a new site 2.7km away on Monday, was stormed by 50 masked, machete-wielding men who attacked devotees, including senior citizens and women. About 20 vehicles were damaged or set alight before the Federal Reserve Unit and police forces arrived on the scene. Several devotees were injured in the attack.
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Following the attack, thousands of people gathered outside the temple last night to show support and ostensibly defend the temple, a gathering which also turned violent as emergency service staff were attacked – landing one firefighter in the intensive care unit – and the developer, One City Development, had its office vandalised.
In his statement, Mahathir emphasised that the altercations were “not race riots, although it involved the relocation of a temple”.
Hindus in Malaysia are primarily composed of ethnic-minority Indians.
The premier warned that the police were under strict instructions to bring the situation under control and act against “irresponsible people who caused disturbances which resulted in injuries to enforcement and rescue personnel, alongside damaging public property … I stress that this incident is a criminal matter, and has no relation at all to other elements”.
Currently 21 individuals have been arrested.
Political scientist Wong Chin Huat of state-funded think tank Penang Institute described the temple clashes as “at most, inter-sectarian violence”.
He drew parallels between the temple incident and church arson and temple desecration cases in 2010 and 2008. “Then, Malaysian society grew stronger because the communities involved didn’t fall for the trap,” he said.
“If we can stand by each other in solidarity, society will be stronger after the test. However, if we leave the victims to their own defence, what is incidentally inter-sectarian may become ultimately inter-faith,” Wong said, warning that state institutions had an obligation to halt violence and uphold justice to avoid leaving wounds in specific communities.
The Sri Maha Mariamman temple riots are the first race relations test that the Pakatan Harapan government, which came to power in May in shock election results, have had to face. In multicultural Malaysia, such relations have long been a hot-button issue, with the spectre of the bloody race riots that took place in 1969 frequently trotted out for political mileage.
Wong’s stance was echoed by Awang Azman from University Malaya’s Institute of Malay Studies, who said the government had to act swiftly to ensure national unity, particularly in the face of inter-ethnic issues.
“Many will take advantage and paint the government as slow to act. The government must act firmly so that such provocations do not continue.”
The temple riots occurred just days after the government reversed its decision to ratify the United Nations’ anti-discrimination convention, following protests from Muslim groups in league with the opposition who claimed the treaty would infringe upon special race-based constitutional privileges.
Meanwhile, reports on Tuesday surfaced that chunks of pork – forbidden to Muslims – had been tossed into two Islamic worship buildings located in a state just a few hours drive from the nation’s capital. On the same day, hundreds of stateless Malaysians – understood to be mostly ethnic Indians – gathered in front of the administrative district’s national registration building to apply for valid identity cards and birth certificates.
Selangor chief minister Amirudin Shari has called for a meeting of the National Security Council state chapter this evening, saying its priority was to restore order. Yesterday, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department P. Waythamoorthy claimed the police had not acted swiftly in attending to the matter, arriving hours after the initial violence took place.
Member of Parliament Charles Santiago said the temple violence was a symptom of “Indian underclasses venting their anger”, and that action against the initial instigators of violence had to be taken.
“The sanctity of a belief system was violated. The government must address these issues which began with the encroachment of dozens of young Malay men into this space,” he said.
“The persons who engineered this must be brought to task. It is clear from the nature of the incursion that it was highly organised. The situation must be cooled, and both the prime minister and the Selangor state chief minister must show leadership in proposing solutions.”