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INTERVIEW - Malaysia's ethnic relations in "precarious" state

From Yahoo! Asia News of October 05, 2006

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Relations between Malaysia's different races are in a "precarious" condition because the government has been slow to defuse religious disputes, the country's most prominent opposition figure, Anwar Ibrahim, said.
Fiery speeches at a recent meeting of the pro-Muslim ruling party have rekindled worries in a nation with a history of racial tension, while other squabbles over religion have led non-Muslims to fear for their rights.
But the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has only moved sluggishly to tackle the disputes, and this has allowed tempers to rise, Anwar said in an interview at his home in a suburb of the Malaysian capital late on Saturday.
Anwar, who once led thousands in anti-government street marches demanding reforms, said the religious tension had reached a worrying level.
"Yes, generally that is the perception," he added. "Although I think it is precarious because of the failure of leadership."
He added: "I mean, you allow these things to become issues. Why can't there be clear policy decisions on these things?"
Anwar, 59, threw Malaysian politics into turmoil in the late 1990s when he fell out with then-leader Mahathir Mohamad over how to respond to the Asian financial crisis. Sacked from government, Anwar led street protests against his former mentor.
He spent almost six years in prison on charges of sodomy and corruption that he said were trumped up.
Released in September 2004, when a court acquitted him of sodomy, but barred by the corruption conviction from standing for office until 2008, Anwar has become a democracy campaigner and spends his time lecturing at American and British universities.
Anwar said the Abdullah government's failure to defuse religious tension quickly was demonstrated by two recent cases in which non-Muslims have battled for funeral rights over a relative whose religious beliefs at the time of death were in doubt.
"Non-Muslims are threatened because they feel that their right to bury is being not only questioned but despised. Then you talk to Muslims and they say the Muslim majority in this country is threatened because their rights are being eroded," he added.
Malaysia's politically dominant ethnic Malays form a slim majority of a population of 26 million and are overwhelmingly Muslim, while ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians account for about 25 percent and 8 percent respectively.
The ethnic Malays have a history of tension with the ethnic Chinese, who dominate business and are far wealthier.
In May 1969, hundreds of people were killed in race riots that many people in political power today, including the premier, fear could happen again if tensions get out of control.
Anwar said he aimed to get rid of the racial ill-feeling through a series of talks with different groups among the Muslim community to find ways to strengthen democratic discussion.
"Although I have always called for inter-religious dialogue, now I'm thinking of having this intra-Muslim forum to help them regain their confidence, to say: 'look we are affected, we are threatened because there is no democratic space'," he added.
Speeches at a November meeting of Abdullah's United Malays National Organisation fed the racial fears, Anwar said.
Some delegates at the meeting, televised live for the first time, shocked non-Muslims with a call to sever the heads of non-believers and veiled talk of using a knife on the party's political opponents.
Anwar said he did not believe the current tension could explode in violence similar to 1969 because Malaysians had become more mature in their thinking since then.
"I don't think that scenario would happen, although I think the situation is bad enough," he said. "I think Malaysians are mature and they have strong views, but I don't think they would go to that extent."
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