KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) — Malaysian police fired tear gas at ethnic Indian protestors rallying here Sunday in support of a multi-trillion dollar lawsuit that blames Britain for their economic problems, witnesses said.
At least 8,000 protestors defied a ban and pushed their way towards the British High Commission (embassy) to deliver a petition despite a heavy security presence and blockade of roads leading to the building.
Police also used water cannons on the crowd who had gathered near the iconic Petronas Twin Towers but the protestors refused to budge while some threw the tear gas canisters back.
Chemicals used in the water cannons cause nausea and force people to gasp for air.
Witnesses said police beat up some protestors with batons. Organisers said at least 400 people were arrested and 19 injured. Police, however, said more than 100 people had been detained.
"Over the last 50 years Indian have been marginalised in this country and we now want the same rights as enjoyed by other communities," M. Kulasegaran, opposition lawmaker with the Democratic Action Party (DAP), told AFP.
"They have no rights to stop us from protesting today. This is the will of the people," he said.
The lawsuit targets Britain, Malaysia's former colonial ruler, and is aimed at highlighting what ethnic Indians here say is continuing discrimination by the Malay-Muslim majority government.
It seeks four trillion dollars' compensation for the estimated two million ethnic Indians whose ancestors were brought here as indentured labourers by Britain in the 1800s -- two million dollars each.
The gathering is organised by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf).
The activists are also demanding the government boost the social and economic standards of minority Hindus, who make up the third largest community in Malaysia.
After six hours of confrontations, police allowed Hindraf to submit the petition but the offer was rejected.
P. Uthayakumar, Hindraf's legal adviser, said the petition would be delivered to Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in London. The crowd then dispersed following pleas from organisers.
The petition asks for Britain to appoint a lawyer to represent them in their case.
Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, minister in the prime minister's department, backed police use of force.
"This protest is illegal. The police have been given permission to use legitimate means to halt the gathering. And this means the use of tear gas and water cannons," he told AFP.
Lim Kit Siang, opposition lawmaker and chairman of the DAP, said the excessive use of police force "is most high-handed, ham-fisted and undemocratic."
The government had banned the rally, fearing it could spark racial violence and warned that anyone who participated would be detained.
Demonstrators condemned the tough police action and said that they would not be not silenced.
N. Vijayan, 40, an engineer, said the Indian community had been marginalised for too long.
"This demonstration should be a wake-up call for the government that we are really upset with its policies," he said.
Ethnic Indians, mainly Tamils, account for eight percent of Malaysia's population. A large proportion lack skills, money and education.
Forming 60 percent of the nation's 27 million people, ethnic Malay Muslims make up the majority group, while 26 percent are Chinese.
Malaysia won its independence from Britain 50 years ago.
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