May 13 more accurately ‘genocidal’ than racial riots

Written by CT Wong, CPI 

The deputy Utusan editor-in-chief Zaini Hassan (left) had recently written that May 13 should be celebrated as ‘tarikh keramat’ — an auspicious and sacred day. He opined that May 13 is a blessing in disguise and without May 13 the Malays would not have enjoyed the benefits as what they are enjoying today.

From the Oxford Fajar bilingual dictionary, ‘keramat’ means “place or object that is (believed to be) sacred with supernatural or magical powers.” The powers refer to the special ability to cure sickness or to provide protection.

So far, May 13 has not cured the malignant sickness of racism dating from colonial times – colonialism is a form of racism. Neither do the citizens feel more protected from its relapse. What we witnessed was not supernatural powers, but authoritarian powers that destroy the very foundation of democracy – separation of powers of the executive, the judiciary and the legislative.

I find it difficult to understand how May 13 might wish to be celebrated as sacred, as spiritual. The predators become heroes and idols. Where is the sacredness? When unarmed Malaysians who were non-combatants were sacrificed by those in the deadly pursuit of power and wealth, God or gods were also sacrificed. In fact, civilisation, if not God, abandoned us during those dark days.

To the Germans who are proud of their Einstein, Beethoven and Sigmund Freud, these names are forever linked to Auschwitz in the land of Germany. To many a Malaysian, ‘Islamic’ civilisation and the ‘Malays’ are eternally linked to the May 13 genocide.

The Germans do not celebrate the Holocaust, but to create a museum right in the centre of the SS headquarters and exposing all the crimes against humanity of Hitler and the Nazi party, lest the future generations forget. In this land of Malaysia, the ethnic minorities are repeatedly reminded of “May 13 or equality!”, lest they forget.

We can always look for a silver lining in our tragedies if we want to. However, the Utusan editor seemed to find the smell of death quite sweet and fragrant. This brings me back to the times how I lived through the days of May 13.

May 13 to me

I was an adolescent living in a rather isolated Chinese-owned rubber-holding up north. Just a mile away was a formerly foreign-owned rubber estate with mostly Indian rubber tappers. And a few miles away was a Malay kampung. When the news or rumours of ‘racial riots’ in KL reached us, we were shocked not only by the killings but the way it was carried out.

On May 13, life and death depended on skin colour; the skin that protects us as a biological organism suddenly becomes a death sentence and our vaguely friendly Malay neighbour could suddenly be a murderer. Such fearful thoughts disturbed me for quite a number of days.

My family and I had been forced to move to the nearest small town to stay just in case we happened to be the victims.

As times went on, the traumatic memories and the rawness of receiving a rude shock out of the deep slumber of racial accommodation slowly faded. I moved on with my life. But, time and again, non-Malays like me are being reminded of May 13.

What is May 13 then? And why call it racial riots?

Social contract destroyed

To me, May 13 means that the Alliance government of the day failed to protect its citizens. It means that the social contract between the state and citizens was deliberately broken.

May 13 means the killing of civilians. It cannot be justified by any rules of war.

May 13 means the extension of politics by an unjust and immoral war.

The use of the phrase ‘May 13 racial riots’ is constantly being circulated and recycled in all our narratives, including that from the opposition parties. It is understandable if we use euphemistic terms to describe something awful so that we can cushion off the emotional overwhelm. But the phrases ‘racial riots’ or ‘racial clash’ or “May 13 incident” only serve the purpose of bleaching the mass atrocities, the mass murders of May 13.

Dissecting the label

The word ‘racial’ is quite a harmless term. You can use it for ‘racial harmony’ also. It does not bring out the sense of cruelty embedded in racism. When killing based on race is so ruthless, you don’t call it ‘racial’ anymore. It would be more appropriate to use ‘genocidal’ instead.

From etymology of the word, ‘geno’ refers to race and ‘cide’ refers to killing (e.g. homicide, suicide, patricide, etc).

From a definition by the United Nations, genocide refers to the destruction in part or whole of an ethnic group based on religion, ethnicity and racial identity. It does not need to be total as the Final Solution of the Nazis; neither does it need to be deaths in the magnitude of the hundreds of thousands or millions as in the Rwanda genocide.

S.A. Budd, the British High Commissioner to Malaysia in 1969 was quoted as saying “…that of 77 corpses in the morgue of the General Hospital on 14 May, at least 60 were Chinese…” (Kua Kia Soong, 2007). The demography of ethnic identities is obvious.

Gregory Stanton, the President of Genocide Watch, argued that “The motive of the killer to take the victim’s property or to politically dominate the victim’s group does not remove genocidal intent if the victim is chosen because of his ethnic, national, racial or religious group.”

The intent was clearly genocidal in the case of May 13. So, May 13 may be more accurately redefined as the May 13 genocidal mass killing, or May 13 genocidal massacre, or genocidal mass atrocity, or if we retain the ‘riots’ terminology, at least May 13 genocidal riots, lest we celebrate the historical events for the wrong reasons.

Riots as we understand it from the experience of the United States, Britain and Europe is that of an expressive act of hostility by the aggrieved and subordinate group or class. The American blacks, for example, were so marginalized economically and culturally that violence was used as a counterbalance against power inequalities. Rioting is often used defensively by the ethnic minorities to confront the authorities who are from the dominant group, in particular the police, to bring them to the negotiating table.

Riot is not usually an instrument employed by the state.

May 13 was not perpetrated by the skinheads or a Chinese secret society. It was “a planned coup d’etat by the ascendant state capitalist class against the Tunku-led aristocracy.” (Kua, 2007).

In other words, it was state-sponsored, or at least state-tolerated with deliberate and conscious planning.

Nothing sacred to celebrate

Without the green light from the top and Malay power elites, the scale and magnitude of the destruction would not be possible within a mere few days. The Malaysian official statistics of casualties as of May 21, 1969 were: “137 killed — 18 Malays, 342 injured, 109 vehicles burned, 118 buildings destroyed, 2,912 persons arrested, mostly curfew breakers.”(Kua, 2007).

TIME magazine (May 23, 1969) cited Western diplomatic sources as believing the death toll was closer to 600, with most of the victims Chinese. It also wrote that “…By the time the four days of race war and strife had run their course, the General Hospital’s morgue was so crowded that bodies were put into plastic bags and hung on hooks.”

Hence, May 13 may be re-conceptualised as the 1969 Malaysian Genocide, of which there is nothing sacred to celebrate. We, whatever our race and religion, would like to die with dignity in a spiritual or cultural sense. This desire is a human norm as only men bury our dead.

The violent deaths of May 13 were otherwise than dignified.

I could still remember those days when the adults were talking excitedly, at times with horror, under the rubber trees about the deadly slaughter happening hundreds of miles away in Kuala Lumpur.

There were the stories of the Chinese secret societies which were viewed as a nuisance in peaceful times but during May 13 becoming the protector of community. Also, I heard that there were courageous soldiers who refused to be willing executioners. The truth, be it from the perspective of the perpetrators or of the massacre survivors or the conscientious objectors, is yet to be openly told.

Ian Ward of the London Daily Telegraph reported on May 23, 1969 that “The initial stages of the government crackdown produced glaring discrimination against the Chinese.” (Kua, 2007).