Fifty years on, fateful race riots still haunt Malaysia


The aftermath of fatal race riots in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 13, 1969. PHOTO/Facebook

PM Mahathir Mohamad’s political career was forged in the fires of May 13, 1969 race riots yet he remains reluctant to seek truth about the violence

This month Malaysia commemorated the 50th anniversary of one of the darkest episodes of its post-independence history, a convulsion of racial violence that still haunts the multi-ethnic nation.

The bloody race riots of May 13, 1969, saw explosive communal clashes between ethnic Malays and Chinese break out in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, leaving hundreds dead and a then young nation traumatized.

Five decades on, the date still looms large in the national consciousness and weighs like an albatross on the generations that lived through the carnage where as many as 800 may had been killed in an orgy of racial violence.

Then as now, race relations remain a delicate matter and at the center of multi-ethnic Malaysia’s long-enduring but controversial social contract that favors the ethnic Malay majority over minority Chinese and Indians, a construct that emerged in the riots’ aftermath with the 1971 New Economic Policy (NEP).

Over the years, various politicians have evoked the episode’s sectarian violence as a warning, often in the lead up to elections, that any challenge to the special rights and constitutionally-ascribed privileges enjoyed by Malays would upset the nation’s delicate balance and possibly lead to new bloodshed.

As successive Malaysian governments pursued modernization and delivered rapid economic growth in recent decades, some argue that Malaysia has matured to the point where racial clashes on the mass scale of 1969 are unlikely to reoccur.

Indeed, when last year’s historic election delivered a peaceful transition of power from the long-ruling United National Malays Organization (UMNO)-led coalition to the reform-oriented, more multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan, threats of post-election racial violence failed to materialize.

Still, there are signs of fragility. Those came to the fore during violence and rioting last November over a land dispute involving the relocation of a Hindu temple on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur to make way for a property development. A young firefighter was killed in the melee.

Police claim a large group of Malay men were hired by the property developer to take control of the building. Clashes with Hindu devotees erupted soon after and dozens were arrested in connection with the fracas. The government acknowledged the sensitivity of the episode and maintained that it was an isolated incident rather than a race riot.

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