Film on 1969 Malaysia riots courts controversy

Shannon Teoh
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The film Tanda Putera ("Mark of Princes") depicts race riots four decades ago that still haunt the country

A scene from the film Tanda Putera ("Mark of Princes"). The government-backed film depicting one of the most politically traumatic days in Malaysian history has sparked fears it will tear open decades-old racial wounds in the multi-ethnic nation

A government-backed film touching on one of the most sensitive episodes in Malaysian history has sparked fears it could stir racial tensions in the multi-ethnic nation as an election showdown looms.

Before even being released Tanda Putera ("Mark of Princes") has become a target of critics who say a film depicting race riots four decades ago that still haunt the country was irresponsible -- charges rejected by its director.

Several weeks of rioting broke out on May 13, 1969 between majority Malays and ethnic Chinese after an election setback for the Malay-dominated ruling alliance. Officially, 196 died, but many put the toll much higher.

The riots, popularly known by the date May 13, had a far-reaching impact.

It accelerated moves by the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to enshrine privileges for Malays that are resented by other groups, and a post-riot crackdown set the course for decades of authoritarian rule.

Even today, UMNO frequently evokes May 13 to warn against threatening the political status quo, which the multi-ethnic opposition calls racial fear-mongering.

Tanda Putera is the first feature film about an episode whose actual cause remains under debate, but its director Shuhaimi Baba defended the film.

"What is so controversial about it? Other countries have films about their own history without going to the dogs," she told AFP, saying critics should hold fire until seeing it.

Malay-language press reviews have praised the quality of the movie since a media-only screening July 18, and its backers say it focuses less on the riots than on relationships between top Malaysian leaders who dealt with it.

Many comments on the film's Facebook site called for Malaysians to have an open mind about the picture.

But in a sign of May 13's sensitivity, the Facebook site has been flooded with criticism by users who haven't even seen the film.

"I'm sorry but this movie is really instigating racism. How can the government approve something like this?" one comment said.

Some critics took exception to scenes of apparently provocative actions by the Chinese community shown in the film's trailer on YouTube, which earned 4,130 "dislikes" as of Wednesday against just 436 "likes".

A separate Facebook page has called for a boycott.

The official government view is that communists incited racial tensions, which the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) further inflamed with a victory march through the capital Kuala Lumpur after May 10 polls.

Opponents of that interpretation, however, say a Malay elite led by then- deputy premier Abdul Razak Hussein orchestrated the unrest as a pretext to cement Malay control. Abdul Razak became prime minister in the aftermath.

A person involved in making the film told AFP it was "government propaganda" and includes beheadings by communists played by ethnic Chinese actors, and Chinese shouting "all Malays go and die."

"It only shows one side of what happened," the source said on condition of anonymity.

Half of the movie's RM4.5 million ($1.5 million) budget was supplied by the government-run National Film Development Corporation (Finas).

Malaysia is bracing for tough elections that Prime Minister Najib Razak -- Abdul Razak's son -- must call next year amid bitter divisions between the Malay ruling party and an opposition seeking to capitalise on growing public calls for change.

Abdul Razak is a key figure in the film, fueling online accusations it was meant to boost Najib ahead of the polls by glorifying his bloodline.

Finas had pushed back a September 13 release to year-end, saying more time was need to promote the picture, but its head, Naguib Razak (no relation to the prime minister), insisted the film would go ahead.

Others expressed fears the film would stir hatred by demonising Chinese and the opposition. The DAP is part of the opposition alliance.

May 13 is often evoked by UMNO to justify pro-Malay policies it insists are needed to placate Malays fearful of economic dominance by the Chinese minority.

Muslim Malays comprise about 60 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people. Chinese make up about one quarter but are over-represented in business.

Veteran Malaysian activist Kua Kia Soong, who wrote a 2007 book challenging the official verdict on May 13, said he had not seen the film but that UMNO typically stirs Malay fears when it faces a tight election.

"It unleashes another propaganda film or video or advert to frighten the people and to try to rally the Malay voters," he said.