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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

MALAYSIA DIARY: Journeying Through a Black Experience Not My Own



Traveling on an air-conditioned bus along Malaysia's North-South Highway to Kuala Lumpur can not sensibly be compared to the freedom ride from Selma to Montgomery. But for the dark-skinned man seated near me, it could well have been a similar historic journey. He was a Malaysian activist of Tamil-Indian descent traveling from Johor Bahru to lend political support to five Indian lawyers detained indefinitely without trail under Malaysia's draconian internal security law. The lawyers are leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force or HINDRAF, which led a demonstration of 20,000 Indians in the capital last November. Two of them, M. Manoharan and S. Pushpaneela, are campaigning for seats in Parliament from their jail cells in next Saturday's general elections (on March 8th). Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's National Front coalition is expected to win hands-down, but with far less Indian support than in 2004 where it received close to 80 percent of Indian votes HINDRAF's real aim is to weaken Badawi's allies in the Malaysian Indian Congress, whom many Tamils say have done little to address racial discrimination leveled at their communities. Indian resentment has been building up for decades over what they see as substandard housing, separate but unequal education, and until it was recently halted, the demolition of half a dozen Hindu temples.

As a rule, Indians here do not consider themselves "black" in any Westernized racialized sense of the word. But the man on the bus was the color of charcoal. He and his fellow Indians form less than ten percent of the country's twenty-five million people. Chinese make up twenty-four percent. The majority are Malays, who benefit from the New Economic Policy enacted in the 1970's that grants them special preferences in education, housing and civil service employment. The Tamil man on the bus compared Malay dominance to white skin privilege in the United States. That may be overstating the degree to which Malays are favored, but as I traveled from city to city documenting the treatment of Indians I encountered a set of "black experiences" not unlike my own.

Like "your 1963 March on Washington," said Giwi Katharah of the Tamil Foundation, an NGO representing the educational interests of Malaysia's Indians, " the (November 25th) rally woke up a traditionally passive population that's been tolerant too long of their second class citizenship. It gave Tamils a common sense of purpose."

On a former rubber plantation not far from the capital, I walked through a muddy field to speak with a 43-year-old mother named Shantie. Hers, along with fifty other Tamil families, is being evicted from the land harvested by her grandfather and his father before that. The tiny Tamil plantation school is slated to be rebuilt on a plot of land abutting a cemetery. That was the final straw for Shantie, who told me before this happened she had never protested anything. "I never get proper schooling for my children, so I joined demonstrations on November 25th. The tear gas, the water hoses. I can not breathe. If government consider Indian rights than we can see our future."

Another black woman a long time ago told me something along those same lines. One night in Detroit while watching grainy TV images of civil rights activists being bitten by police dogs my mother decided to take part in her first demonstration. She said it was for us -- her children. A few years later our neighborhood went up in smoke with news of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. It was a turning point in my young life, as I set out to report on race as a direct consequence of that period.

The worst race riots in Malaysia's history had a similar impact on M. Kulasegaran, an Indian MP from Ipoh. The violence of May 13, 1969 pitted Malays known as Bumiputra or "sons of the soil" against the economically dominant Chinese. Indians for the most part stood on the sidelines. Kulasegaran was picked up by police one day while he was out selling biscuits. When his mother arrived to pluck him from the station he said he saw "powerlessness in her eyes". That was the spark for his life-long obsession with politics, culminating in his election to Parliament thirty years later. Today Kulasegaran is part of the main Indian opposition, which has seen its influence grow since November 25th. "Those days when we would go and speak and get one hundred people is over. Now the minimum that show up to hear us is one thousand to two thousand people."

The now frequent Tamil demonstrations have triggered a backlash from the Malay majority. Government critics and editorial writers for the two major newspapers accuse HINDRAF and its allies of trying to re-ignite the fires of 1969. Tamil leaders in turn have accused the government of fomenting ethnic cleansing. But I have found nothing to suggest the existence of such a policy. Still, the fact that many Indians believe this to be true should be of concern to the Malaysian government, which has worked hard over its 51 years of independence to cultivate a worldwide image of tolerance and racial harmony. That idyllic projection is now threatened by activists who say they will continue to turn out Tamil communities in a show of force. A Tamil academic, Dr. S. Nagarajan , said in the same way that the 1963 march on Washington embarrassed the U.S into enforcing basic constitutional rights, Indians hope to use international media attention to force Malaysia to live up to its creed.

Imprisoned HINDRAF leaders do not have high expectations for next Saturday's Parliamentary elections. But they are looking to build a permanent grassroots opposition to the Malay and Indian political status quo in the form of an organization they call Makkal Sakthi or Peoples Power. Like many African Americans, some even dream of one day having a "black" president. Says MP Kulasegaran, "There is a new civil rights movement here. And I believe some changes can take place. It's like Barack OBama says, "'yes, we can'."

But the wishes of most ordinary Tamils are far more modest. Shantie, for one, says she simply wants well-built schools that are situated no where near cemeteries or any other marker for the dead.

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WGBH , PRI and BBC Announce a World-Wide Reporting Initiative Focused on Color

WGBH Radio, Public Radio International and the BBC have announced the launch of “The Color Initiative”, a landmark journalism project that will examine complex global issues of politics, culture, history and society through the framework of human perceptions and experiences related to color. Once complete, this on-going project will air on The World, broadcasting on WGBH 89.7, Mon-Fri at 4pm and 7pm. Feature Color Initiative stories reported from around the globe will be produced by Lifted Veils Productions, a Boston-based non-profit radio journalism organization dedicated to exploring issues that divide society. Former NPR supervising senior editor and NPR’s former Race Relations Correspondent, Phillip Martin, will serve as lead correspondent. He is also the Executive Producer of Lifted Veils Productions. Anthony Brooks, The World’s former senior producer and former national correspondent for NPR, is the Color Initiative series editor. The World’s Executive Producer is Bob Ferrante. The project is made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. “The establishment of an international editorial beat dedicated to covering color worldwide is the first of its kind, and places The World in a unique position in public radio in the United States and Britain,” says Marita Rivero, General Manager for WGBH Radio and Television. Among the topics that will be explored by the Color Initiative are: • COLOR AND IMMIGRATION: A FOUR PART SERIES • IRAQ’S WAR DEAD, AMERICA’S RESPONSE AND THE ROLE OF COLOR • CASTE, COLOR AND EDUCATION IN INDIA The first report in the year-long project looks at the on-going marketing campaign by Benetton, which mixes business with socially conscious messages focusing on diversity of all sorts, including color. Those messages are now coming up against growing anti-immigrant realities in Europe, including the dominant presence of the Northern League in the very Italian city where Benetton is headquartered: Treviso. That report airs in early November. About The World Winner of the 2006 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for Broadcast News, The World with anchor Lisa Mullins has been bringing daily international news to local audiences for the past 10 years. Monday through Friday at 4pm on WGBH 89.7, the international staff of The World presents a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. The World is the first international radio news program developed specifically for an American audience, giving listeners an upbeat and informed take on the day's events. Co-produced by WGBH, the BBC World Service, and Public Radio International, The World is heard on more than 200 public radio stations across the country. About WGBH Listener-supported WGBH 89.7 is Boston's NPR® arts and culture station. Bringing you the best for more than 50 years, 89.7 serves its wide-ranging audience with a menu of classical music, NPR news, jazz, blues, folk, and spoken-word programs. The station is an active participant in New England's vibrant music community, presenting more than 300 performances every year, including live broadcasts and remote recordings from such diverse venues as Tanglewood, the Lowell Folk Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, and WGBH's own studios. WGBH 89.7 can be heard online anywhere in the world at, and can be heard on Nantucket at WNCK 89.5.