The six Malay Muslims appear jubilant despite being charged under Sedition Act for illegal demonstration. They angered Indian communities in the country when they marched with a cow's head. (Photo: Mstar)

The six Malay Muslims appear jubilant despite being charged under Sedition Act for illegal demonstration. They angered Indian communities in the country when they marched with a cow's head. (Photo: Mstar)

Six Malaysian Muslims were charged on Wednesday with sedition after they marched with a cow’s head to protest the construction of a Hindu temple in a case that has stirred racial tensions in the country.

The men were from a group of about 50 who had marched on Aug. 28 with the head of a cow, which is sacred to Hindus, to protest a plan to build a Hindu temple in their mainly Muslim neighbourhood.

The incident has angered Malaysia’s mainly Hindu Indians who make up 9 percent of this mostly Muslim country of 27 million people.

Analysts say the protest reflected the increasingly difficult task Prime Minister Najib Razak has in narrowing ethnic and religious differences to win back ethnic minorities who abandoned the government in last year’s polls.

“The trial shows how precarious race and religious issues still are in Malaysia, and how a small issue like the relocation of a temple can spark off a potential race riot,” said James Chin, a politics professor at Monash University in Kuala Lumpur.

Both the government and opposition have condemned the protest and have blamed each other for their handling of the issue.

The six were part of a group of 12 protesters who were charged with illegal assembly. The men contested all the charges, and were granted bail pending trial.

The sedition charge carries a maximum three-year jail term and a fine of 5,000 ringgit ($1,400). The illegal assembly charge carries a maximum 12-month jail sentence and a 10,000 ringgit fine.

“We are not guilty, and we are united,” shouted several of the 12 men as they arrived in court on Wednesday morning accompanied by a group of about 30 supporters.

The lead counsel for the six charged with sedition, Salehuddin Saidin, told the court that the men never intended to “insult any other religion”.

“For Malays, the cow symbolises stupidity, not an insult to any other religion,” said Salehuddin.

Many ethnic Indians and Chinese dumped the ruling coalition in last year’s general elections, complaining of marginalisation.

The National Front, which has ruled Malaysia for 52 years, ceded control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states as well as its two-thirds majority in the poll.

Najib, who took office in April, has pledged fairer treatment of ethnic minorities under his inclusive “1Malaysia” policy.

But critics said his United Malays National Organisation Party (UMNO) has been more pro-Malay of late in a bid to try retain support of the majority Malay Muslims.

-Reuters