Rights groups and politicians say that anger is growing among the country's minority Hindu community as temples, many of historic value, are bulldozed at the rate of at least one every few weeks to make way for new developments.

Hindu groups have appealed to Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the prime minister, to halt the destruction and respect the rights of religious minorities in mainly-Muslim Malaysia, but concern is growing that the situation will become volatile.

Waytha Moorthy, the chairman of the Hindu Rights Action Force, which lobbies on behalf of affected temple groups, said that "at the moment, devotees are pleading and crying, but eventually they will not plead and cry anymore".

"We are worried if people get emotional about it, they will resort to other means. They have come to us for help, but eventually we will also fail unless the government intervenes."

Thousands of temples

About half of Malaysia's 26 million people are Malay, who are almost all Muslim, 8% are Indians - mostly Hindus - and 24% Chinese, with indigenous and others making up the rest.

"The land belongs to the government and the government has to build roads, schools and bridges. We are a liberal society and I respect all religions"

Mohamad Amin Abdul Aziz, City Hall deputy director-general

The country has thousands of Hindu temples and shrines, many built on private or plantation land by Indian migrant labourers before the country gained independence from Britain in 1957.

The land has since been acquired by local councils or state authorities, who argue the temples are illegal buildings and have been knocking them down.

Hindu groups say the nationwide destruction of temples has been going on for years, but that demolitions in the capital Kuala Lumpur and the states of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan have accelerated lately.

The government, under fire for bulldozing temples with police assistance, said it had demolished three since February to make way for road projects and a low-cost housing development.

Consultation

Another three are due to be demolished over the next few months but in consultation with Hindu groups over how it should take place, said Mohamad Amin Abdul Aziz, City Hall's deputy director-general.

"The land belongs to the government and the government has to build roads, schools and bridges," he said.

"We are a liberal society and I respect all religions. I want them to have a temple of their own, but they should go through the proper channels," he said, adding groups had to build on land gazetted for temples or buy land privately.

But Hindu groups argue that the authorities should permanently relocate the temples, some of which are more than 100-years-old, and are used by devotees from lower income groups who cannot afford to buy land.

Protest

In a sign of growing frustration, some 50 Hindus, including women and children, held a rare protest in front of City Hall late last month to complain their religious rights were being trampled on.

TM Ramachandran, the Southeast Asia organiser for Hindu Sevai Sangam, a group that counsels young people, said Hindus were being "suppressed" and left little room to negotiate over temple relocations.

Muslim Malays make up about
half the population

"More than being angry, we are very frustrated because we are also citizens of this country," said Ramachandran.

"We have been very, very tolerant for so many years with these things happening. They've really pushed us to the wall."

The unrest over the demolitions follows the controversial Muslim burial in December of an ethnic Indian mountaineering hero, M Moorthy, over the protests of his Hindu wife who said he had never converted to Islam.

The incident raised ethnic tensions and accusations from Malaysia's religious minorities that their rights were being undermined by what they say is growing Islamic conservatism.

Human rights group Aliran has also warned the demolitions could ramp up religious and racial tensions in a country which constantly working to maintain ethnic harmony.

After the Moorthy case, "such demolitions could also reinforce the feeling among members of cultural minorities that their democratic and religious space is slowly and unjustly being squeezed", Aliran said.

Communal violence

S Paranjothy, the deputy chief of the youth arm of the Gerakan party which is a member of Malaysia's ruling coalition, said he feared tensions over the demolitions would spill over into a repeat of previous communal violence.

"You are pushing people and some of them may be fearful, but others may not tolerate this ... anything can happen"

S Paranjothy, deputy chief Gerakan party youth arm

The so-called 1978 Kerling incident saw Hindu devotees killing a group of five conservative Muslims who were caught desecrating a temple.

"You are pushing people and some of them may be fearful, but others may not tolerate this," he said.

"If they carry on like this, there will be a repeat of this. The other time it was only five that died, but the next time 50 or 100 may die. You never know, anything can happen."