Najib Cancels Controversial Rally

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak stepped and cancelled a controversial Malay rights rally scheduled in the eastern state of Terengganu on the 41st anniversary of the worst racial riots in the country's history.

Some 10,000 people representing 45 Malay-rights groups had been expected to attend the rally, called Melayu Bangkit (Malays Uprising), in a stadium in the town of Kuala Terengganu, according to local newspapers, with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad scheduled to provide the keynote speech for the event. Organizers said Mahathir himself had picked the date.

Although leaders sought to portray the rally as merely an event to speak about Malay relations, the title – Melay Bangit – and the fact that the organizer is a Malay rights organization called Gerakan Kebangkitan Rakyat, or Gertak for short, which means "scare" in the Malay language, left little doubt as to its purpose.

The decision to block the rally drew praise for Najib across Malaysia, with Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who has been critical of Najib's policies in the past, commending the decision, for instance.

Najib didn't issue a statement. Arpin Deraman, the director of the Terengganu Integrity Institute, which was helping to organize the event, said told reporters the Terengannu Chief Minister's office had called to say the gathering was ordered postponed on security grounds.

The decision to schedule the rally on May 13, and Mahathir's decision to provide the keynote address, generated shock across the country, whose racial relations are perennially sensitive and have been growing more so over the last year. Ethnic Malays make up about 60 percent of the population, Chinese 25 percent, Indians 8 percent, the rest other races.

Leaders of the fundamentalist Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, condemned the plans to hold the upcoming event. PAS vice-president Salahuddin Ayub and secretary-general Mustafa Ali described it as dangerous and "bordering on extremism." Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang called on Najib to cancel the event.

But the opposition parties were joined by members of the Barisan Nasional coalition as well, with leaders of both the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress condemning the rally.

Loh Seng Lek, a member of the MCA Central Committee, said Mahathir's agreement to appear at the rally was tantamount to racism.

Although officially only 196 people were listed as killed during the 1969 riots, which began on May 13 and went on sporadically for more than two months, some estimates are that as many as 2,000 people were killed, mainly in Kuala Lumpur as ethnic Malays and Chinese battled it out. The riots ultimately resulted in the suspension of parliament. To this day, Malaysian politicians on all sides refer to the riots constantly almost as if it had happened in the recent past.

The riots were also the wellsprings of the New Economic Policy, instituted in 1971, an affirmative action program established for ethnic Malays, who at that time occupied the bottom economic rungs of Malaysian society, while the Chinese largely ran the economy. Expected to last only until 1990, it was reconstituted largely as it under a new name, the National Development Policy, which nobody ever used. It is still referred to by most as the NEP. And, critics say, like most affirmative action programs it has largely failed.

The 84-year-old Mahathir has played an increasing role in demanding special rights, or ketuanan Melayu. He has appeared at a series of rallies, most recently at one in Selangor for the Malay rights NGO Perkasa that the Sultan of Selangor declined to attend despite the sultans' constitutional role as protector of Malay rights.

The former prime minister did not release a statement on the cancellation of the Terengganu event.

The growth of the Malay rights parties is a troubling trend in Malaysia which Najib is seeking to combat. He has allocated US$24 million to be spent through the US public relations giant APCO on his 1Malaysia campaign designed to bring the country's three disparate races together and to seek to rebuild the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition. He has assiduously visited minority events, the most recent by becoming the first prime minister to visit the Toa Pek Kong procession in the Sarawak town of Sibu on May 12 in advance of a by-election Sunday, May 16.