Was the riot in Malaysia’s entertainment and commercial district racial?
According to reports, an estimated 200 Malaysians, mainly youths from Malaysia’s ethnic majority Muslims, demonstrated violently by destroying property and beating up members from a minority ethnic group, the Malaysian Chinese.
The riot reportedly started after a 22-year-old jobless man named Shahrul Anuar Abdul Aziz was accused of stealing a mobile phone worth MYR 800 (about $210) and handed over to the police. Afterward, rumors circulated on social media that that an ethnic Chinese trader had conned a Malay man by selling him a counterfeit phone.
While several forms of discrimination (particularly racism) is institutionalized (and accepted) by Malaysia’s minority groups, this is the first time that such a large scale riot has happened against them in an unlikely setting. Racial clashes in the past have occurred primarily in urban poor housing areas, the two most significant being the Kampung Rawa and Kampung Medan riots, but Bukit Bintang is an upmarket area, predominantly Chinese, and internationally known as the entertainment and commercial capital of Malaysia. A most unlikely place for a race riot to occur.
The incident and subsequent reactions raises several interesting questions.
The woeful inadequacy of the police in preventing the incident from escalating, raises questions. It raises questions because Malaysia’s police have sweeping powers to address threats to state and society. The irony is that the Malaysian police are notorious for their abuse of these powers, ranging from deaths in custody, extra judicial executions to violently disrupting legitimate and peaceful assemblies. In this case, they appear to have lost that “notoriety.”
The brazenness of the demonstrators does raise questions. Malaysians by and large are not known for mob violence. This behavior is associated more closely to supporters of the ruling party as they are known to be immune to prosecution. Investigations are on-going and it is worth watching what would happen to these demonstrators.
The authorities are also investigating several individuals for sedition. Most prominent is Mohd Ali Bahrom, the president of the Armed Forces Veterans Association, a known associate of key leaders from the ruling party.
The authorities have already denied that this was a racial riot. Segments of Malaysia’s political class and society, from both sides of the divide, have also supported this idea.
Sophie Lemiere, writing in New Mandala, suggests that this is not a racial riot but an unintended outcome of how the ruling party has been running the country. She terms this Politok — a combination of ruling party politics and amok. Individuals and groups that the ruling party procures for violence and used to the immunity are taking the law into their own hands to resolve disputes.
Race riots or not, Malaysia is certainly treading dangerous grounds.
This article first appeared in Forbes