50 years on, seeking the path to reconciliation after the May 13 riots
This article was originally published at Malaysiakini : https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/475926
Editor's note: The following article includes troubling details of the deadly riots on May 13, 1969. This dark episode of history is so painful that it is shrouded in secrecy and taboo.
Fifty years to the day, we are sharing several stories for generations of Malaysians born after the riots. May it serve as a lesson for today and our collective future.
The bloody riots of May 13, 1969, in Kuala Lumpur – just three days after Malaysia’s third general election – has left an indelible mark on the nation's history.
In the decades after, and often in the lead up to elections, political leaders often raise the spectre of May 13 as a means to further their vested interests.
In the meantime, the trauma remains deep in the hearts of the victims and their families as the tragedy remains largely unspoken and stigmatised.
Malaysia is not the only country that faces historical trauma, but others have managed to overcome their dark past and move towards reconciliation.
One such country is South Africa. Following long-time opposition leader Nelson Mandela’s election as president in 1994, the government formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the impacts of apartheid.
The commission held truth-seeking hearings to allow both victims and perpetrators a safe space to share their experiences. Perpetrators were given amnesty conditionally.
The aim was to restore relations between the oppressed black community and their oppressors from the white community, and it did so by fostering truth-seeking, mutual understanding, reasonable compensation, apologies, and faith in history-recording.
An extensive report comprising of thousands of pages was published, and the commission continues working towards supporting victims and proposing policies that promote national healing.
But there were drawbacks.
The way perpetrators are offered a pardon in order to get the full disclosure has been questioned as it may violate the legal rights of the victims' families. The South African government was challenged in the Constitutional Court on this matter.
This is unlike in post-World War II Germany, where high profile Nazi leaders were sentenced to death or life imprisonment during the Nuremberg trials.
The trials were held to punish perpetrators of crimes related to the genocide of about six million European Jews under Nazi Germany. It was conducted by the International Military Tribunal that was set up by the Allied Forces after it captured Germany.
But taking the punitive approach has not fostered mutual trust between victims, perpetrators, and their sympathisers.
Although Nazi symbolism is banned in Germany, the country continues to grapple with Neo-Nazi movements. In 2012, the German intelligence agency estimates that about 6,000 Neo-Nazi followers were living in the country.
The social context
So which method should Malaysia follow to bury the spectre of the May 13 riot?
Sunway University political scientist Wong Chin Huat said as foreign experiences and approaches are rooted in their own social context, they may not be applied directly in Malaysia.
He pointed out that the essential reason why Germany was able to undertake “denazification” to purge the elements of the old Nazi regime was that it was a defeated country then.
Similarly, after the reunification of Germany, the past records of East Germany’s secret police (Stasi) were declassified, and those with a tainted past were forbidden to take certain jobs, similar to the “lustration” in some post-communist countries.
"When the citizens had accepted that crime has been committed by the state, dismissing the past was to establish a different future. Also, those who were purged were losers with neither legitimacy nor organised resistance," he said.
For South Africa, Wong (photo) said the government was able to uphold justice because apartheid was globally condemned, and black people were the majority.
A tough approach on the old regime would continue the ethnic conflict so a softer approach was taken, Wong said.
Some countries do not pursue transitional justice for their dark history. In Indonesia, the mass killings of communists and Chinese Indonesians cut too deeply, that the establishment fears an investigation could lead to political and social upheaval.
“Hence, if there is no transitional justice, the survivors or their families will not get closure, and then there will be no complete reconciliation," he said.
"On the other hand, if transitional justice causes the other party to react strongly, there will never be reconciliation."
In Malaysia, the first big hurdle is establishing the truth. Although the National Operations Council published a white paper on the riots in October 1969, this version of events has been incessantly questioned.
In the NOC’s version, the riots were a spontaneous incident triggered by overt and insensitive celebrations by opposition parties after winning about half the seats in the Selangor state assembly in the 1969 polls.
But other scholars, like Kua Kia Soong, argue the riot was a veil for a coup d’état against the then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, favouring his deputy Abdul Razak Hussein. Razak’s ascent to premiership in 1970 was seen as evidence of that.
Disparities between the number of people who died have also been a source of contention. The NOC report said 196 people died; British diplomats at the time estimate it to be around 800.
The NOC casualty figures may be markedly smaller, but the proportion of Chinese Malaysian victims who died, mostly from gunshot wounds, leads to another bone of contention – the perceived partiality of the Malay-dominated security forces. Much at stake
Beyond the details of the riot, the repercussions are also problematic.
Parliament was suspended in 1969, and when it reconvened two years later, Razak was the prime minister.
He believed unity could only be achieved with the fair distribution of wealth. This led to the National Economic Policy in 1971, using affirmative action to grow bumiputera ownership. The NEP has lapsed but its ethos remains, with race-based affirmative action favouring Malays and other bumiputera firmly in place.
Wong said, many non-Malays believe that re-examining the May 13 tragedy could remove the legitimacy of the “post-1969 pro-Malay establishment,” which would be necessary for its eventual removal.
At the same time, according to him, most Malays see the post-1969 system as fundamental to the survival and dominance of their ethnicity and faith, which must be defended at all costs.
Hence, “If re-examining history can be harmful to the system, concealing or distorting history would be a necessary evil,” he explained.
“If the history of May 13 is but a battlefield for a larger war, then revisiting it will not bring us closer to reconciliation.”
“On the other hand, if we just forget May 13, not only the survivors and their families are denied a closure, the spectre of May 13 – as a result of partisan interpretations – will stay on in our society.”
Overcome the fear and start the discussion
Many generations after 1969 grew up with an inexplicable fear of the May 13 tragedy.
The incident remains off school history textbooks, while stigmatisation has stopped those who lived through it from freely discussing it with younger generations.
For years, it has been a convenient bogey against a change of government. In 1969, the riot came after opposition supporters prematurely celebrated what they believed was their takeover of the Selangor assembly, when in fact it was hung.
But in 2008 and in 2018, peaceful regime change happened at state and federal level respectively, scorching the fear of post-election bloodshed. Might the time be ripe for a national conversation on May 13?
Former Suhakam commissioner Jerald Joseph (photo) first started holding anti-racism and non-discrimination workshops across the country a decade ago. He feels that encouraging a conversation on this dark episode of history is a step towards reconciliation.
“Reconciliation is about overcoming suspicions, misinformation and misconceptions, and moving towards real respect to each other.
“Not talking about it, or not being able to talk about it, will suggest that we have not grown, and that means we have not moved on from the past.
“I think the history books today must try to uncover the actual actors involved and how it happened,” he said.
‘No one’s starting a war’
In the first three decades after the riot, those interested to learn more about the incident from the National Archives would only find the NOC report.
Copies of newspapers from the year 1969 were conspicuously missing – purportedly damaged with time.
But times are changing. Copies of newspaper articles and photos related to the riot began entering the archives since 2001, and now they are available for public access.
Photos available include those of campaigning for the general election, the funeral procession of a Labour Party worker in Kuala Lumpur that the NOC report said had raised tensions before the polls, and May 13 refugees housed in stadiums. There are also books on the topic published by NGOs and some transcripts of oral history.
However, some old newspapers are not digitised, the ageing paper crumbles and fall apart each time somebody flips through its pages.
But the inclusion of these items may indicate a growing readiness to explore the issue.
Joseph believed Malaysia is ready for a South Africa-style commission to establish the truth and seek reconciliation in an apolitical manner.
His experience running anti-racism workshops taught him that Malaysians are able to talk about their suspicions and fears of one another without negative repercussions.
"There were some people who cried during the process, but at the end, everybody hugged, and they started to talk about their inner pains," he said.
"That was also a kind of reconciliation process. There are many small efforts have been done over time, and I think it's time for Malaysia as a nation to reconcile any race-based past.
“All that (the riot) is in the past. None of us today are proposing to go to war. It is for us to close our old chapter so nobody will ever dare to use May 13 as a negative way to threaten Malaysians anymore."
But not everyone is so optimistic.
Helen Ting is a political scientist specialising in the politics of national identity, multiculturalism and history education.
She believes that while a peaceful regime change has put to bed the fear of post-election violence, it is still not the right time to discuss an ethnically-sensitive issue like the May 13 due to the current political climate.
This is because the Umno-PAS cooperation after the 14th general election is forcing a political agenda that is based on race and religion.
Discussing it now at a time where the government is too “fragile” to confront its opponent’s ethnically divisive political rhetoric would only derail the objective of reconciliation, Ting (photo) said.
She said the government has shown it was “not thoughtful or well-prepared,” and had buckled under pressure when confronted with issues relating to race and religion.
“I believe that one day in the future, the state should admit the experiences of the people, admit they are the victims and that they are innocent.
“But when is the right time? That is a problem. I don't think it's the right time now,” she said.
Ting said the socioeconomic situation now has changed as the NEP has resulted in the growth of a Malay middle class.
“They will not hope that the racial riots happen again, because it will affect the national economy, and thus affect them.”
Instead of revisiting history to use the May 13 riot as a cautionary tale, she said other mechanisms can be used to avoid a recurrence, including fair law enforcement and controlling the spread of rumours.
A new narrative
Political scientist Abdul Rahman Embong believes it will be difficult to establish the truth of what happened on May 13, 1969.
“Digging into the past, especially when there is a very delicate past, has its pros and cons. If you say you want to achieve the truth, how would you verify truth? What is acceptable to you, may not be acceptable to the other side,” said the professor emeritus at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
Rahman also believes that a riot of that nature is unlikely to recur because political and economic conditions in Malaysia have changed.
“Why go back? We should move forward. There were errors in the past, yes, but our concern now is the future. If it is an immediate past then it is different, but this is half a century (ago).”
Instead of nationwide truth and reconciliation hearings à la South Africa, Rahman (photo) said, it would be better for a commission to be established to collect grassroots views on what should be the new Malaysian narrative.
One difficult topic that will need to be addressed in the bid for reconciliation is race-based affirmative action and its impact on national unity.
While it was largely accepted as a means to correct imbalances in 1969, race-based affirmative action policy without expiry dates will institutionalise racial discrimination, Joseph said.
To move towards unity, it needs to be replaced with a needs-based policy – a move Rahman said will still favour Malays as they make up the bulk of B40 community, but will also help those of other races in need.
Any conversation to dismantle the legacy of the NEP – and by extension, May 13 – however, is likely to face stiff resistance if the reaction to the decision to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd) is anything to go by.
As for how the political and socio-economic system should evolve, Wong believed that the most important factor is public opinion at the present, not what happened in the past.
He stressed that to have an open discussion on history and correct any injustice, we must “understand and empathise,” instead of automatically taking positions that further our vested interests.
The difficulty in discussing it should not derail all efforts to record what happened during the May 13 riot, Wong said.
“The most urgent thing is to record oral history as much as possible, because witnesses or survivors are ageing and dying.”
“The next task is to study the historical archives as many files in foreign archives may be declassified as their confidentiality period ends.
"To complete these urgent tasks, what we need is ample resources, not grandstanding,” Wong added.
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