KUALA LUMPUR, Jun 1 (IPS) - "Why do they have to tear down our temples," asked A. Kanagamah, a hospital worker. Tears streamed down her cheeks as city hall workers, protected by police in riot gear, demolished a 107-year-old Hindu temple in the city mid-May
Hundreds of worshippers watched in horror as the workers, mostly Muslims, brought down the roof, pushed down the walls and smashed the deities that immigrant Indian workers had brought with them from South India to provide solace in a strange new land.
"We are poor and our only comfort is our temples and now we are losing that also," Kanagamah said in Tamil, the language spoken by ethnic Indians who form eight percent of Malaysia's 26 million people and mostly follow Hinduism.
Indians are economically backward and politically weak compared to Malays who comprise 50 percent of the population and dominate decision making at every level. Ethnic Chinese, who make up another 24 percent, enjoy economic clout and dominate business activity.
Over the years, local authorities have been regularly demolishing temples saying the structures were built illegally. Most were small wayside shrines.
However, in recent years, several large 100-year-old temples, built during the British colonial era, were demolished not just because they stood in the way of development but simply because they were classified as "illegal structures."
It is now a common sight to see bulldozers reducing large temples to rubble and workers to smashing deities before the eyes of helpless worshippers.
"The demolitions are indiscriminate, unlawful and against all constitutional guarantees of freedom of worship," human rights lawyer P. Uthayakumar told IPS.
He said temples are demolished by the local authorities as illegal structures but the same authorities make it impossible for devotees to get a permit.
He cited the case of a Catholic church in nearby Shah Alam city which got a permit to build a church after 30 years of trying. "What does this say about freedom of worship?" he asked.
After months of suffering in silence, Hindus and others protested outside city hall this week. The protesters, including woman and children, carried placards, chanted mantras and prayers, burned incense and broke a coconut.
Lawyers, human rights activists and opposition party leaders also joined the protest.
"There appeared to be an unofficial policy of Hindu temple-cleansing in Malaysia in recent months," said P. Waytha Moorthy, chairman of the Hindu Rights Action Force, a coalition of about 50 Hindu organisations.
"Nine temples have been torn down in the last three months," he said blaming overzealous Muslim officials for the destruction. "We are worried Hindus will turn violent," he told IPS.
Hindu temples were built by migrant workers on private or abandoned land that were later acquired by local and state authorities. These temples mainly serve devotees from the lower income group, said Moorthy. "The labourers are poor, politically weak and unable to take legal action to protect their temples or fight off the authorities.''
Moorthy argued that temple demolition was against Article 11 of the federal constitution that guarantees freedom of religion. "It is also a blatant criminal offence under section 295 of the penal code that makes any act that injures or defiles a place of worship a serious offence," he said.
The protestors have submitted a petition to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi urging him to issue a firm directive to all federal, state and local authorities to stop the demolition of Hindu temples. However, similar appeals, made earlier, were ignored and scant action taken.
The demolitions have angered not just Hindus but individuals of other faith who see it as a violation of basic human rights.
"This way of (demolishing) is brutal and makes Hindus angry," said Dr Sanusi Osman, an academic and senior leader in the National Justice Party (NJP) of opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim. "The authorities should interact with worshipers, draw-up proper guidelines and provide alternative sites before tearing down temples," he told IPS.
It is not only temples that are coming down in increasingly intolerant Malaysia.
A country that once boasted an open and tolerant multi-ethnic society s now under siege by a dangerous mixture of Islamic fundamentalism and Malay ethno-nationalism. Racial, religious and cultural intolerance is becoming an everyday phenomenon.
For instance some local authorities want to prosecute couples for holding hands in public because they see it as ‘un-Islamic'.
Around Christmas, last year, authorities demolished a church belonging to the indigenous Orang Asli community, on the grounds that it had no permit.
The police recently ordered non-Muslim policewomen to wear the ‘tudung' or Muslim headscarves. Some local authorities even want to ban or restrict dog ownership because conservative Muslims consider dogs to be ritually unclean animals.
On May 14 about 500 Muslims stormed and disrupted a forum by lawyers and others entitled ‘Federal Constitution - Protection for All', called to discuss the rights of religious minorities against encroachment by Islamic Shariah laws.
Scores of police personnel who were present at the forum did not stop or arrest the trouble makers but instead forced the organisers to cancel the forum.
''Non-Muslims increasingly feel alien in their country of birth," said Tian Chua, a senior leader in the opposition Peoples Justice Party told IPS. "Unlike before, under Prime Minister Abdullah, there is an increasing tendency for Malays to rally around Islam -- it is a worrying trend."
"There's a creeping Islamisation in our society and this poses a danger to our secular, multi-religious and multi-racial country," said opposition leader Lim Kit Siang. "The destruction of any place of worship is unacceptable -- the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi must urgently intervene.''
Islamic fundamentalism has its roots in the competition between the ruling and moderately Islamic United Mlaya National Organisation (UMNO) and its traditional rival, the Pan Malaysia Islamic Party or PAS.
Each have tried to out do the other as the champion of Islam. Their competition and rivalry continues to the detriment of tolerance and secularism.
The architect of Malaysia's pro-Islamic drive, while serving as deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim says he only advocated the adoption of Islamic values in government and the civil service and not the "Arabisation" of Malaysian society.
''I myself am worried about the direction of the country," Anwar said at a recent forum on the topic. "Our leaders are failing us. We need strong and committed leadership to arrest the decline." (END/2006) "