KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - An ethnic Indian in Malaysia is using an audacious strategy to highlight the plight of his mostly impoverished community by suing Britain, the country’s former colonial ruler, for $4 trillion (1.9 trillion pounds).
The Malaysian government dismisses the case as baseless, but lawyer Waytha Moorthy is determined to pursue it, even vowing to appeal to the Queen to appoint lawyers for the Indian community, which he says is too poor to find its own.
Moorthy wants Britain to pay damages of 1 million pounds to each of Malaysia’s 2 million ethnic Indians for rights abuses he traces to colonial-era labour schemes that brought their ancestors to Malaysia as indentured workers.
“We are seeking compensation because we were permanently colonised during British rule, and now, under the government of the ethnic Malays,” Moorthy told Reuters.
“We have lost touch with our roots and have been suppressed so far,” said Moorthy, who accuses British officials of failing to honour their responsibility to protect ethnic Indians when they granted independence to Malaysia in 1957.
In colonial times, many impoverished Indians and Chinese flocked to work and settle in Malaysia, drawn by government schemes meant to attract cheap labour for the country’s then lucrative rubber estates and tin mines, he added.
Some might feel that Moorthy, who paid court fees of more than 2,000 pounds to file his case in London’s Royal Courts of Justice, has already got a run for his money from the Malaysian newspaper headlines that have trumpeted his story.
But the episode highlights a very real dilemma: after 50 years of independence, ethnic Indians, most of whom are Hindu, own just 1.5 percent of the country’s national wealth.
The group, which forms about eight percent of Malaysia’s 26 million people, says a decades-old affirmative action plan for the country’s Malay Muslim majority has deprived it of opportunities, and the government has done little to improve living standards.
The affirmative action plan, adopted after deadly race riots in 1969, favours politically dominant Malays in housing, education, businesses, jobs and state contracts. Ethnic Indians say the policy is discriminatory.
Poor education further cripples their chances of upward social mobility, forcing them to continue being labourers, although some are now losing out to cheaper foreign workers.
“Indians have suffered under the Muslim-majority Malay government and also during British government rule for the past 200 years,” said Moorthy.
His suit also asks the British courts to declare the Malaysian constitution void for not safeguarding the rights of ethnic Indians, and seeks British citizenship for the group.
Moorthy said he was gathering 100,000 signatures for a petition to the Queen to appoint lawyers to represent the Indian community, which was too poor to pay its own legal costs, which he estimated would reach a million pounds.
“We only want justice in the United Kingdom courts,” he added. “Whatever justice is given to us we will accept.”
(Editing by David Fogarty)
$1 = 0.4846 Pound