Saturday, November 24, 2007

Rising in Malaysia. Handle With Care. The Dangers of Feeding Poor People.

In downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, some Dior dresses just got dry-cleaned with tear gas, in an interesting illustration of the principle that if aggrieved people get enough food, things can happen, politically.

This Sunday morning, November 25th, local time, an extraordinary demonstration was mounted by vast numbers -- many tens of thousands, at least -- of Malaysian ethnic Tamils .

Among the poor ethnic Tamils of Indonesia, across the Malacca Straits, their Malaysian cousins are regarded as lucky, even "rich," to be living in such an affluent land.

But though the Malaysian Tamils -- known as "Indians" locally -- have crossed the thresholds of nutrition and energy, they are, in the Malaysian context, largely working class and politically marginal.

So Malaysia's rulers must have had their eyes popping out as they watched the closed-circuit security feeds (there was no public live broadcast of this momentous event on state-controlled or private TV) and saw waves of upset, well-built, mostly-male Tamils descending on the streets around the KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Center complex), the site of the elegant Petronas twin towers -- until recently, the world's tallest buildings -- , and the high-end Suria KLCC shopping center, which makes most US malls look shabby.

They had banned that demonstration, arrested its organizers for "sedition" (potential three years jail time, at least), and ringed the city with security checkpoints. And yet here they all were -- those formerly quiet working people -- mainly not even bussed-in or holding banners, the semi-spontaneous eruption of a political movement that just a few months ago did not exist. A few shouted things like "Freedom!," "Justice!" A few gave soapbox speeches without the soapboxes. But mainly they were just vast numbers of people standing and walking (and calling their friends on cell phones) in the street, and then suddenly sitting down when they saw the police open-up with water cannons.

If one asked what was going on, the first response was "we're non-violent!" (the one visible held poster was a color blow-up photo of Gandhi). As to why they were demonstrating, "Indian rights, we just want our rights!" One older gentleman started contending: "Under the British colony we were slaves. Now, freedom, but we are still slaves, we want equal rights to land, housing, our temples," but he stopped as everyone involved started shedding tears and retching, as the police opened-up again, this time with a fusillade of tear-gas canisters.

In the planned, high-political sense this was a procession to the nearby British High Commission to present a petition to the Queen in connection with a reparations lawsuit seeking 4 trillion dollars as compensation from the British for the colonial crime of having brought the Tamils to then-Malaya as indentured laborers.

But many in the huge crowd seemed not to know those details. The lawsuit, one of those long-shot political gambits that once in a blue moon actually works, had somehow lit a fire among people who had grown strong enough to carry torches, an ethnic minority (8% of Malaysians are Tamil) who noticed that the regime, for other reasons, was weakening and decided that their time had come -- in front of the mall with the designer labels.

As those affected fled the clouds of tear gas -- but, on recovery, cheered each new arc of canisters -- one could notice that the few police close to the scene had folding-stock machine-guns in the smalls of their backs.

If just one of them had reached around, pointed crowd-ways and pulled the trigger, Kuala Lumpur this morning probably would be amidst a mass uprising.

But today's Malaysia largely isn't like that. That's one of the reasons its people are fairly rich. After a vicious '50s counterinsurgency by the British in which many died in concentration camps (and which, along with El Salvador, is now being touted as a model "CI" by US intellectuals), Malaysia, after independence took a different road than post-'65 Indonesia, putting some controls on foreign investors, shockingly defying the IMF, and developing a big middle class with domestic industry, public works and housing, and -- as Malaysia pulled away economically from Indonesia and Bangladesh -- cheerfully exploiting the labor of the country's really poor poor people, the rotating pool of immigrant workers who work, get abused, get paid, and go home (or are sent home).

And crucially, Malaysia did something that London and Washington normally frown on: they utterly castrated the army as a political institution. Though Malaysia has been, and is, authoritarian with engineered elections, no free press, and a very nasty police Special Branch, they chose to eschew mass murder as a tool of (domestic) politics (internationally, they were close to Suharto, and now are to the Burmese junta).

In Malaysia, the army is a non-factor, not even a political joke, since almost literally no one thinks about it, let alone worries about it wielding power. I once spent a week in a Malaysian hospital room overlooking an army base and never once observed anything more martial there than coed volleyball.

What Jakarta and Washington (by proxy) have long done by usually having the guy pull the trigger, modern Malaysia has sought to do through more subtle repression and cooptation -- including the mounting of a tame, pro - government, Tamil political party (The Malaysian Indian Congress, MIC, whose leaders must also, at this moment, be sweating).

That regime formula is now in some trouble (in some part because, years ago, they got undisciplined and made the mistake of beating and jailing a complaining Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who is now out and mounting a challenge).

But the fact that they faced today's surprise popular surge and were able to hold their gun-fire shows that this is a regime that is still quite smart and disciplined.

They have come to understand that when poor people get rich enough to be strong but not rich enough to feel justly treated, those people become politically dangerous and should be handled with care.