KUALA LUMPUR : Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi declared a popular Hindu festival a public holiday Sunday, in an olive branch to the ethnic Indian community following months of dissent.
The colourful Thaipusam festival, during which devotees pierce their bodies with hooks and skewers, attracts more than a million people each year at Kuala Lumpur's Batu Caves temple.
Abdullah, whose government cracked down hard on ethnic Indian anti-discrimination protests last year and jailed organisers, declared Thaipusam a holiday in Kuala Lumpur and the administrative capital Putrajaya.
Malaysia's opposition had urged him to recognise the festival, which falls on Wednesday, as a gesture of reconciliation after the crackdown, which raised tensions in this multi-ethnic country dominated by Muslim Malays.
Thaipusam is already a holiday in several states, but the new directive means the federal government and financial markets will be closed, along with businesses in the capital, Abdullah's aides said.
He made the announcement at a rally by the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) - part of the ruling coalition - led by Samy Vellu who has been criticised for not addressing the Indian community's problems.
"I have been asked by Samy Vellu and by so many others, even at a festival yesterday, so let's have it as a public holiday," the premier told a cheering crowd of some 7,000 MIC members.
"But holiday is holiday and work is work, and we must make sure to work hard and vote hard," he said, in a reference to general elections expected to be called soon.
But opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said the gesture was too little too late from the government, which is holding five leaders of ethnic Indian activist group Hindraf in detention without trial.
"Although we welcome what the PM is offering, it would be a grave mistake if he thinks this will address the problems of the Indian community that were highlighted by Hindraf in their rally," Lim told AFP.
"It is definitely too little and much more is needed to help the community," he said.
The Hindraf protest highlighted the grievances of Malaysia's Indians - descendents of labourers brought over by British colonial rulers in the 1800s - who say they are marginalised in terms of education, wealth and opportunities.
At the MIC rally in suburban Kuala Lumpur, Abdullah also announced a new cabinet committee devoted to the government's goal of eradicating poverty by 2010.
"We must reduce hardcore poverty. For 50 years we have been trying, we will continue to do that," he said, without specifying the scope or membership of the committee.
"In terms of hardcore poverty, the Indian community is not alone as the Chinese and Malays also have their share," he added.
About 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people are Muslim Malays, living alongside large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities. - AFP/ch