Saturday, August 15, 2009

Q&A: 'Why I filed the suit against the British'

In this first an two-part exclusive interview with Malaysiakini, Hindraf chairperson Waythamoorthy talks about his struggle for the betterment of the Indian community, the civil suit, his ties with Pakatan and the Nov 25 rally that changed the Malaysian political landscape.

He claimed he was tortured during his four-day imprisonment in November 2007 in the Sungai Buloh prison. However, he declined to provide further details.

"There were other kinds of torture and threats which I don't wish to reveal at this point in time because I'm planning to come back home," he told Malaysiakini during an interview in London.

Malaysiakini: Your civil suit in 2007 propelled Hindraf into prominence. What made you file a suit against the British and not the Malaysian government?

Waythamoorthy: They Indians have suffered tremendous injustices. I researched the history of the country's independence and discovered that the British colonial governance was the root of the Indian predicament in Malaysia. The British, through its East India Company, brought in thousands of Indians from India as indentured labourers.

They failed to safeguard the interests and rights of Indians when the British drafted the Malayan Federal Constitution prior to the independence. Because the constitution was vague, Indians remained colonialised by the Umno government.

The Indians were exploited for nearly 150 years by the British and thereafter by the Umno-controlled federal government for over 50 years until today. Therefore the British colonial government was the root of the problem.

So I told the Indians that they should go after the British. Since I had no confidence in the independence of the country's judiciary, I filed the civil suit against the British.

I claimed £1 million for each of the estimated 1.8 million Indians in Malaysia in damages for the suffering of their forefathers and the present generation. Based on this, the AFP report summed up my claims at US$4 trillion.
The AFP report became international news.

What's the status of the suit now?

I filed the civil action on the eve of the country's 50th anniversary of independence. But I have not served the writ on the defendant, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It should have been done within three months of filing the case. I could not serve it because I did not have British solicitors and barristers to do so. I need a legal team to proceed with the suit.

I filed the action as a symbolic gesture with the intention of serving it to the defendant. I was hoping that by handing over the letter of appeal, which had 130,000 signatures, to Her Majesty the British Queen via the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 25, I would be able to secure free services of Queen's counsels and solicitors to pursue the case further in the British courts.

However, my effort was spoilt by the Malaysian government and the police. The authorities, not Hindraf, turned an originally pre-planned peaceful march to the British High Commission into an anti-government rally. As a result, the status of my suit remains as it is, pre-Nov 25.

It's not an overstatement then to say that your civil suit shot Hindraf to prominence?

I would not agree with that assessment because my civil suit was filed in my personal capacity. It had nothing to do with Hindraf. But, since I'm Hindraf chairperson, public perception swiftly linked the suit to Hindraf, and I eventually adopted it. It put Hindraf at forefront of the Malaysian civil rights movement.

The suit opened up the eyes, ears and minds of the Indian community on their legitimate rights, interests and benefits they are entitled to. They had been engulfed by a colonial mindset up until then.

Although the majority of the younger generation does not have the mindset, over the years they have been instilled by their parents and the Umno government that Indians are migrants and squatters in Malaysia. Indians have been frequently told that they don't deserve equality, fairness and just policies. Article 8 of the Federal Constitution stipulates clearly that all citizens shall be treated equally.

Therefore the suit actually raised the issue of citizenry rights and what Indians justly deserve and were entitled to.

Why did Hindraf hold a nationwide road show?

We conducted the roadshow due to overwhelming public interest in the civil suit. They wanted to know more about what it meant for them. I never thought it would attract such large crowds. I was surprised by the thousands who turned up. The people trusted Hindraf. They saw a different breed of activists. They knew that we were genuine, honest and sincere in fighting for their rights, something that the Indians never had all this while.

What do you hope to achieve for Indian Malaysians with your suit?

It's an interesting and unprecedented suit. It will open the floodgates. I don't want to reveal just what my plans are. But a close perusal of my writ and statement will give you an indication of what my civil suit is capable of achieving.

What was the Nov 25 rally all about?

The rally was originally planned as a peaceful march to handover an appeal letter to the British Queen. However, the Umno government turned it into an anti-government rally.

Firstly the police rejected our application for a permit to hold the march. My letters for a meeting with the IGP Musa Hassan to explain the march were ignored. Then the prime minister, deputy prime minister, home minister, the IGP and attorney-general issued a series of media statements to warn Malaysian Indians against attending the rally.

They threatened and intimidated the public with jail and detention without any reason. That was their mistake. This angered Malaysian Indians who have been unhappy for far too long. They wanted to show solidarity and support for the civil suit.

The government had also locked down Kuala Lumpur for four days prior to the rally.
Indians were denied entry into the city. Even those working in Kuala Lumpur had a hard time getting into the city.

Then the government followed it up by arresting me, my brother Uthayakumar and Ganabatirau on Nov 23. We were charged with sedition. This provoked the Indians.

I initially expected only about 5,000 Indians to turn up at the rally. But it ended up with tens of thousands thronging into the city.

So the Umno government was at fault for turning a simple straightforward peaceful event into an ugly and brutal anti-government rally. The Indians then realised that the government agenda's was to stop us from handing over the letter.

Why you think the government resisted the rally?

My guess is that the Umno government got worried when it received intelligence reports pointing out that Indians across the country were united in fighting for their rights. Umno did not want this because the government would face difficulties in handling a united Indian community. Umno was worried that the government would lose its popularity and relevance among Indians in the country. That's the reason why I think the Umno government went out of way to clamp down on the rally.

When you were detained and charged with sedition, you refused bail. Why?

It was a protest to send a clear message to the government that Indians no longer feared intimidation and imprisonment. Secondly, since the city was locked down, I wanted to compel the government to allow Indians to come into Kuala Lumpur peacefully.

We were charged with sedition because the government wanted to instil fear as a way of intimidating the Indians that something bad would befall on them if they attend the rally on Nov 25.

So I wanted to send a signal to the authorities that the days of Umno government instilling fear on Indians were over. I'm told I was the country's first human rights lawyer to voluntarily refuse bail and stayed in jail and go on a hunger strike.

I was sending a clear message we don't fear the prison and the days of criminal intimidation on Indian were over. We are a new breed of Indian activists who are prepared to face any consequence to uphold truth and justice.

You stayed in jail for four days and missed the rally. Would you like to narrate your experience in jail?

During the four-day imprisonment in Sungai Buloh, I was jailed in the maximum security cell unit meant for suspects of serious crimes such as murder and drug traffickng. Mine was a special cell, small, filthy, full of insects, without air circulation and a locked in by a thick door. It was extremely bright with a special flickering light. Some of insects were of species that I have never seen in my life.

I was inhaling and exhaling the same air. On the second day, they deliberately stopped tap water supply to the filthy toilet in my cell. I believe that I was deliberately put into it because the authorities wanted to teach me a lesson.

There were other kinds of torture and threats which I don't wish to reveal at this point in time because I'm planning to come back home. Even though I underwent tremendous torture, when I was taken to court on the morning of Nov 26, I told the jail director that I would come back to the cell later that evening because I planned to refuse my bail further.

However, I was surprised by the court's decision to discharge me not amounting to an acquittal.

How did you sneak out of the country during the police clampdown on Hindraf activists?

I don't think I sneaked out. I believe the government planned the clampdown much later after I had left the country. Following my release on Nov 26, I had nightmares of the torture and could not sleep at night. I was mentally disturbed by the memories of my four-day imprisonment. I was restless and did not have a peace of mind.

On Nov 27, I decided to go to India for my annual pilgrimage to regain my physical and mental strength. I normally do this in early December. I got my visa on Nov 27 and left for India the next day. My initial plan was to stay in India for a week.

A few days after I left for India, allegations linking Hindraf with the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers surfaced. Although Uthayakumar and I denied such links, the media was not with us.

Uthayakumar suggested that since I was already in India, I should start my international lobby to garner global support for Hindraf and its legitimate struggle. So I started my international lobby in India and finally ended up going to England.

The government linked Hindraf with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Any comments on it?

IGP Musa and the attorney-general Gani Patail maliciously wanted to brand Hindraf as a terror organisation linked to terrorists. They cooked up the story to justify the subsequent arrest of the Hindraf Five under ISA.

When you realised your passport was revoked, how did you manage to seek political asylum from the British government?

I found out that my passport was revoked by the Malaysian government when I returned to Britain from Geneva on April 19, 2008. The Malaysian government's intention was to prevent me from carrying out my international human rights lobby.

Under the British immigration law, I was supposed to be deported back to my last port of entry - Geneva. I decided to exercised my rights stipulated in the Geneva Convention to seek British political asylum. On April 21, I applied for political asylum and the British authorities processed my application the same day.

The authorities sought more evidence to back my application. Through the help of a Queen's counsel, I managed to appoint a solicitor to manage my application. A month later, I was interviewed formally and in three months, my application was granted.

Isn't it strange that the British government granted you asylum while you are suing the same government for neglecting Indians in Malaysia?

That's the beauty of British governance. The British government knows how to differentiate between a political asylum and a civil suit. The civil suit is my personal right while my request for asylum was a matter of justice. It's only just for the British government to grant my application.

The Nov 25 rally was hailed by many as the catalyst to the political tsunami that swept Malaysian electoral politics on March 8, 2008.

Hindraf never planned the rally to create a political tsunami. We least expected it. It's the Umno government fault to turn the event ugly. Assuming that the government had allowed us to hand over the appeal letter and returned home safely, the Indians would have been only excited, that's all.

The hardline action taken on Hindraf activists before and after the rally, and the police's brutal action on that day angered not just Indians but all decent Malaysians and it translated into anti-BN votes.

Why did Hindraf decide to support and subsequently called on Indians to vote for Pakatan Rakyat during the general election in 2008?

There was a groundswell of Indians demanding an electoral stand. Then we held the Rose Rally during Valentine's Day celebration in February. A few days before the rally, Parliament was dissolved.

The Umno government again reacted brutally against peaceful demonstrators holding roses. Like Nov 25, chemical spraying and tear gas marred the rally. That was the final nail in Umno's coffin.

Indians were asking why the government did not treat them as children of Malaysia. When they asked for my advice, I told them that Indians have suffered enough under Umno's discrimination and brutality.

The Rose Rally was a message of love and peace. But we were treated badly by our very own government.

I told them to vote against BN enbloc. Thousands of our supporters were working on the ground to ensure the success of Pakatan. For the first time, the Indians, a minority community, embarked on bulk voting in the country's electoral process. They voted against BN and Umno.

Indians proved that a minority community's bulk votes had the power to make a change. The Chinese were traditionally fence sitters. Their voting pattern are dependent on the political and economic climate.

They knew they only could increase the number of opposition parliamentarians but can't possibly change the government. When the Chinese saw Indians changing trend, they knew the time had come for a change.

Seasoned politician, Lim Kit Siang even acknowledged that Indians can make a difference in more than 50 parliamentary constituencies.

But I'm not sure about the Malays because they were given the impression that Hindraf comprised a group of fanatics out to topple a Malay government.

We now hope that the Malays would have a better understanding of Hindraf's struggle and we can all work together in the next general election to effect a change at federal level.

The majority of Indians have voted for BN faithfully for 50 years. I think the Umno government had taken the Indian support and votes for granted. The government has been disrespectful to Indian votes, rights and feelings by continuing to oppress and suppress them.

The best way to teach Umno and BN a political lesson is to hurt them at the ballot box. After all the Umno government leaders were arrogant enough to frequently challenge the people to demonstrate their grouses and unhappiness through the ballot boxes.They took their electoral victories for granted.

So Hindraf called on Indians to vote against the Umno government and its hegemony.

Hindraf played a decisive role in changing the country's political landscape. Has it addressed the inequality among races that you were seeking?

No, because the same BN is ruling the federal government. The Umno dominated government has been throwing craps and scraps here and there. But it has done nothing worthy. The Pakatan states too, have done little for the Indians.

Thus far Pakatan states have not formulated, let alone implemented, any worthy long term policies benefiting Indians. Pakatan leaders claim that they are new to state administration and are not in control of the federal government.

They have been in power for 15 months now and the Pakatan states cannot go on singing the same tune. They are duty bound to carry out constructive policies to upgrade the Indians. Pakatan states must do something worthy for Indians before the general election.

Lately though, it seems Hindraf and Pakatan are having an uneasy relationship.

Hindraf will remain apolitical. We will point political mistakes committed by both BN and Pakatan. Just because Indians supported and voted for Pakatan, Hindraf will not remain idle if the coalition made a mistake. We must speak out. It's better for us to speak out now than later.

Pakatan states must understand that they have a responsibility to help the marginalised minority communities, especially Indians. They will have to rule with justice, equality and fairness to all. Currently there are rifts between Hindraf and Pakatan in certain states, especially in Penang on Kampung Buah Pala.

What about the Kampung Buah Pala issue?

Firstly, DAP leaders had promised to safeguard the village for the residents before and after the general election.

DAP acknowledges the land deal was a fraud committed by the previous BN government but why are they now siding the developers and the Koperasi who are part of the fraud?
And it's puzzling that the DAP government accepted the balance payment of the land premium and effected the actual land transfer of Kampung Buah Pala.

This happened even after the DAP government was advised against it by a senior lawyer and its own leaders have promised to secure the village land for the residents prior to the last elections. The DAP government may have condemned the previous Gerakan government for alienating the land.

But now it is colluding with the landowner, Koperasi Pegawai Pegawai Kanan Kerajaan Pulau Pinang, and developer Nusmetro Venture (P) Sdn Bhd to evict the residents from their own land. We are shocked. We are shocked that the same socialist DAP leaders, who are supposed to champion the cause of poor and the marginalised communities, are now collaborating with capitalists.

What you think the DAP government should do now?

Simple. They have to undo it, with a mere stroke of a pen. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has the power under the National Land Code and Land Acquisition Act to acquire the land for the villagers and undo the unjust.

He is dragging his feet and deliberately refusing to exercise his power. He is also justifying his inaction by lamenting that he had to spend millions to acquire the land.

First he claimed it was RM150 million and now he had lowered the sum to RM100 million to acquire the land.

How did he pluck out those sums? According to the land law, an independent land administrator shall assess the land value.

So how did a responsible chief minister come up with such sums? The land was sold for RM3.21 million. The state government could buy back the land for the same amount or even lesser. The residents are not squatters. They are rightful owners of the land. It was stolen from them.

If the DAP government fail to acquire the land for the villagers, I think the Indians in Penang will punish them in the next general election. Hindraf will be duty bound to expose DAP's inaction to Indians in Penang and nationwide. The party should not hold Hindraf responsible for it.

Will the Kampung Buah Pala crisis affect the DAP in long run?

The ball is in DAP's court. DAP can choose to maintain its position or the party can forsake justice and fairness. If the DAP allows the village to be demolished, it will be the beginning of its demise. Guan Eng will be another Khir Toyo.

There seems to be concerted effort in the media and in blogs to attack Hindraf, you and Uthayakumar personally over the village crisis.

Normally I don't read blogs but I have heard criticisms leveled at us. I have read this in Pakatan, and DAP linked websites. Obviously these mails were posted by DAP supporters.

I would like to stress here that I was inspired by DAP senior leader Lim Kit Siang... inspired by his book 'Time Bombs in Malaysia.' I was inspired by Karpal Singh (right). Indeed DAP's political struggle over the years has inspired and shape up my political thinking.

But if the DAP commits a wrong or an unjust act then I'm duty bound to point out the mistake. It is the bloggers fantasy to accuse me of being bought over by BN and collaborating with Umno to come back to Malaysia.

I'm not a politician. I have forsaken all that I had, to fight for justice and truth which is often is buried and clouded by the rich and powerful.

These die-hard supporters of DAP should in fact find out the truth and advise their party to act in accordance to what is right and just. But such criticisms will not deter me. I will continue to oppose any form of injustice and unfairness.

Certain DAP leaders are allegedly touchy whenever criticisms are levelled at them. They apparently use bloggers and ghost writers to launch personal attacks on their critics.

I think some DAP leaders are instigating certain ghost writers and bloggers to attack their critics by feeding wrong information, facts and figures.

I don't think this propaganda would benefit the DAP in the long run, like how the pro-establishment mainstream media had not really benefited Umno. People finally realised that Umno controlled the mainstream media, spreading lies and disseminating false information.

People have now refused to believe the mainstream media. Eventually this will happen to DAP. Just because bloggers played a big role in creating awareness among the people in the last general election, it doesn't mean that the people will continuously believe bloggers. Malaysians from all walks of life are politically matured and they can see lies.

Maybe in the short term, DAP could succeed. Eventually they will say all these lies were spread and instigated by DAP leaders. I just hope DAP can come out of this denial syndrome and address issues intelligently - after all, I'm one of those Malaysians wishing and praying to see Pakatan take over the country from the clutches of BN.

Premier Najib Razak has come up with a 1Malaysia slogan. Any comments on it?

I noticed that each time a new prime minister comes to power, he comes up with a punchy slogan to woo the people. Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) came up with 'Cekap, Bersih, Amanah', then Abdullah Ahmad Badawi with 'Islam Hadhari', now Najib with '1Malaysia.'

Najib is talking about 1Malaysia but it two systems, one system for the Malays and another for non-Malays. The 1Malaysia concept is obviously a non-starter when the government runs two systems.

If he is serious in realising 1Malaysia, first and foremost Najib has to educate and revamp Umno and its members, and stop propagating the Malay supremacy agenda. If he can do that then all his 1Malaysia programmes would be successful.

Can the Pakatan states work to meet Hindraf's 18-point demand?

Maybe not all of them. The state governments are vested with certain powers to carry out policies that could meet our demands. For example, the federal government claims that it cannot make Tamil schools fully aided because most of them were sitting on private lands. Land issues are under the purview of state governments.

The menteri besars and chief ministers can acquire these privately-owned Tamil school lands under the National Land Code and Land Acquisition Act, and hand over the lands to the federal government. Thereafter, we will go after the federal government if it fails to make the schools as fully aided.

On the religious aspect, the state governments can enact amendments to the state Islamic laws to provide greater freedom for religion. Additionally they can gazette all temples that existed before independence in 1957 as places of worship. Pakatan state governments are vested with the power to do that.

They could also open up the state government policies to include all marginalised societies to be included in the mainstream economic upward mobility programmes and get all races equally entitled to all state economic and development projects.

If the state governments refused to use their power then there is no difference between them and Umno governments.

How can the BN government meet Hindraf's 18-point demand?

For a start, the BN government could hold a dialogue with Hindraf, which we have been asking from the very beginning. The dialogue can be the forum to explore various ways and means to resolve the plight of the Indian community.

Do you think Indians would stay with Pakatan in the next elections?

It depends on how Pakatan leaders address the Indian issues. They have to address the problems objectively and not adopt the Umno method of employing mandores to address the Indian issues.

BN is already working out a strategy to win back the Indian voters and thus regain the 50-odd lost parliament seats whereas Pakatan are in their new-found shell of fiefdom in their respective states as menteri besars and are not looking beyond their states.

The four Pakatan states have to prove themselves as leading the onslaught to capture the federal administration in the next general election. Unfortunately they are not addressing the issues let alone resolving them. From 2010, I believe Umno-led BN are going to implement major strategies to win back the Indian voters.

The Indian grassroots are already complaining about the inaction of Pakatan states mainly Selangor, Kedah and Penang. My sincere hope is that Pakatan does not make the same mistake BN did - that is living in denial.

Pakatan states have to show they are people-friendly governments, easily accessible and work for people. Immediate and simple problems that have existed from the BN rule has to be resolved or else I can't see how they could maintain the trust of Indian voters. Indians are politically mature these days compared to few years ago.

Would you prefer Pakatan take over the federal administration in the next general election?

Yes, but it is not going to be easy. Pakatan national and grassroots leaders have to stop their infighting and present themselves as the future government. A shadow cabinet is essential. Alternative national policies have to be formulated and presented to the people.

There is no point talking about change when the people are not given the opportunity to envisage the change. You can't expect the people to fantasise the change without concrete plans and policies. The current four Pakatan-controlled states must present itself as a truly democratic and people friendly governments.