May 13 tragedy: Never again at all costs 50 years on

“Never again” is a phrase often uttered after a disaster, war, brutal act, race riots or genocide. But, as we all know, bad things do happen again. History is littered with such heart-wrenching events.

With the advent of TV and social media, race riots and acts of genocide in other countries are captured in graphic details and broadcast immediately into our homes and handphones.

There used to be a country called Yugoslavia (composed of the republics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia) in Eastern Europe.

Yugoslavia used to be held up as a beacon of unity, peace and prosperity. It was a popular tourist destination.

However political crises in the 1980s fanned by racial sentiments saw its total disintegration into six different countries.

Unfortunately, some of these six new nations were formed after much bloodshed and a series of genocides.

Some of the brutal acts of genocide and its aftermath were captured on camera and broadcast widely.

Scenes of devastated families searching for their lost ones remain frozen in our minds.

After such terrible events, we usually hear speeches that contained the phrase, “Never again”.

In Malaysia, if we are honest with ourselves there have been racial tensions from time to time.

But what seems to be fading from the memory here is the infamous and tragic events of the May 13 race riots in Kuala Lumpur after the 1969 general election.

Reports of deaths range from approximately 200 to 600. The riots led to the declaration of a state of national emergency and resulted in the suspension of the Parliament.

In its place, the National Operations Council (NOC) was set up as a caretaker to temporarily govern Malaysia from 1969 to 1971. Tun Abdul Razak Hussein was appointed the NOC director of operations.

Subsequently, in the NOC report, “The May 13 Tragedy”, Abdul Razak stated, “On that day the very foundation of this nation was shaken by racial disturbances whose violence far surpassed any we had known.”

He further surmised that measures should be taken to ensure future peace, security, and unity of our country and that the May 13 tragedy would not recur.

Since those dark days, Malaysia has managed to avoid a similar tragedy. In fact, some political enemies of the past from the May 13 riots tragedy are now part of the same coalition government. This in a sense could be indicative of how far we have come.

However, if we are honest with ourselves, in some areas of Malaysia, racial and religious tensions are never far from the surface. It is during these instances that cool heads and quick measures have been taken to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

We are fortunate that there have not been any outright riots on the May 13 scale. However, there are always incidents and tensions waiting to happen around the corner.

The problem we now have is that many of these current tensions seem to be engineered to achieve particular agendas.

In the event that these tensions go out of control or are further hijacked by other groups we would be faced with an explosive situation.

We have a recent example, the riots at Seafield Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Subang Jaya on November 26 2018. This resulted in the unfortunate death of a fireman leading to further protests.

We must always be alert to situations that if not managed well can further escalate. Exploiters of issues can trigger scenarios that can very quickly lead to violence and butchery.

It is of great importance that we have better deterrence against people who escalate and take advantage of racial and religious tensions for their own selfish advancement.

We are in dire need of better laws to prevent a repeat of May 13. Specific laws with severe penalties are required for such situations and not sound bites after tragic incidents had happened.

A United Nations’ International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is an ideal law to sign up to. It is one of several human rights conventions that commits its member nations to eliminate racial discrimination and places a duty to promote understanding among all races.

It was indeed unfortunate that there was a reversal by the Malaysian government to adhere to ICERD. ICERD would have been an additional measure towards ensuring stability and would have gone a long way towards managing the insecurities of the many racial and religious groups in Malaysia.

In fact, the various United Nations conventions on human rights also encourage the adoption of the conventions into domestic laws.

A codified human rights law in a multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious nation such as ours is essential.

Current international conventions on human rights state that both public and private individuals are punishable, and leaders are made accountable for their criminal deeds.

The liability for crimes against humanity also extends to those who “planned, instigated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted in the planning, preparation or execution”.

This is the type of strong deterrence required in our domestic law. Additionally, we must have racial equality and phase out discriminatory practices that can fan the flames of hate and destruction of civil society.

Our current peace and prosperity cannot be taken for granted. They need to be worked upon continuously, as has been done. We in Sarawak are fortunate not to have had a May 13-like issues.

The continuous efforts of our Sarawak leaders to foster good relations and understanding among all the communities have provided us with a tranquil environment.

Fifty years after the tragic events of May 13 we need to collectively maintain and further strengthen the laws and fabric of our society. I am sure we do not want the foundation of our nation to be shaken again.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.