Malaysia to protect Hindu temples

San Jose Mercury News

By VIJAY JOSHI Associated Press Writer

Samy Vellu, an ethnic Indian minister in the Cabinet, said the prime minister has asked him to "continuously monitor" all the temples in the country and submit information on their status periodically. He said in a statement that he will travel nationwide soon to compile a report.

"We will identify the illegally built temples first and check on their status. We want to know if there have been any moves or notices to demolish or relocate them," Samy said.

The destruction by authorities of Hindu temples, deemed by the state to be illegally built, was one of the main grievances of the impoverished ethnic Indians who poured into the streets on Nov. 25 in an unprecedented anti-government rally.

The violent protest stunned Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's administration, unaccustomed to such public display of anger, and raised fears of ethnic and racial tensions in this normally peaceful country.

The government maintains that it demolishes only temples built illegally on state or private lands. But Indian community leaders say many of the temples were built during British colonial rule on plantations with permission from the then-owners.

They say that after independence in 1957, the government failed to legalize the temples or list them as national property, even though all mosques were given that privilege.

Indians, who are mostly Hindus and are about 8 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people, also complain that religious discrimination has denied them economic opportunities, government jobs and places in universities in favor of the majority Muslim Malays.

Malays make up 60 percent of the population and control politics and the government. Samy is the sole ethnic Indian Cabinet minister. Ethnic Chinese account for about a quarter.

Samy said that the prime minister "specifically wanted" a list of all temples that are to be demolished for whatever reason.

In cases where temples are set to be demolished, "suitable alternative sites must be allocated so that Hindus can continue to worship," Samy said. "No temples, either legal or illegally built, will be demolished without a thorough check and discussion."