KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia’s police and armed forces warned people last Thursday not to make public remarks that could sour race relations, in a bid to squash tensions following a Malay politician’s diatribe against the ethnic Chinese minority.
The threat of a crackdown on racial provocation reflects fears that increasingly divisive debates about ethnic issues, such as alleged discrimination against minorities, could destabilize this Malay Muslim-majority country.
Armed Forces Chief Gen. Abdul Aziz Zainal said “stern action must be taken to prevent” racial conflicts. However, he stressed that the military would not intervene in “internal squabbles” unless government authorities seek their help.
“There is no country that wants to see itself in turmoil,” Abdul Aziz told reporters.
Malaysia has nurtured decades of multiethnic peace, but a recent outcry sparked by ruling party politician Ahmad Ismail’s description of ethnic Chinese as “squatters” evoked memories of 1969 racial riots fueled by Malay rancor over the Chinese community’s wealth.
Deputy national police chief Ismail Omar said officials were worried that people have been spreading racial instigation through the Internet and cell phone text messages.
“We are warning everyone, irrespective of who you are, that all statements on racial sentiments must cease immediately or police will take action,” Ismail said in comments issued through Malaysian media last Thursday.
The warnings come after Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi vowed last Wednesday that authorities would go after anyone who tries to stoke racial strife — including using a law allowing indefinite imprisonment without trial “if absolutely necessary.”
Abdullah signaled the government’s earnestness by penalizing Ahmad, the Malay politician who recently described ethnic Chinese as “squatters” and “immigrants” who sought to “become like the Jewish in America” by trying to dominate politics and the economy.
Ahmad was stripped of his post as a district chief in Abdullah’s United Malays National Organization, which spearheads a multiethnic coalition government. Police are also investigating Ahmad for possible sedition, which is punishable by three years in prison.
Abdullah’s administration fears the uproar among the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities over Ahmad’s comments could sap its support amid a threat by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to seize power by luring government lawmakers to defect by next week.
Anwar accuses the government of neglecting minority rights in economic, social and religious policies. Growing discontent over issues such as an affirmative action program for Malays spurred minorities to largely vote against the government in March general elections.
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