TANGKAK, Malaysia (Reuters) - On Malaysia's lush green rubber estates, Indian laborers whose ancestors were brought by British colonial rulers in the 19th century to work in tin mines and on plantations, complain of being marginalized.
Indians, one of the smallest ethnic groups in Malaysia making up just seven percent of the population, say they have been left behind as the country's Muslim majority and ethnic Chinese population reap the rewards of economic prosperity.
Race relations, a sensitive subject in Malaysia since race riots in 1969 underscored the fragility of its fragmented ethnic makeup, have become tense recently as non-Muslims fear their freedom of worship is being infringed upon and complain of government favoritism towards the majority Malay community.
With a snap election expected to be held early next month, ethnic Indians are threatening to use the ballot box to vent frustration over the failure of government policies to improve their living standards and incomes.
"In the papers every now and then, the government says it is going to do things for us, but nothing happens here," said Anand, the third generation of his family to work on a palm oil plantation at Tangkak, about 200 km from Kuala Lumpur.
"So the government doesn't do anything for estate workers, being Indians. If they were not Indians, maybe Malays or Chinese, the government would have done something for them."
The Muslim-majority Malays make up about 60 percent of the population, while ethnic Chinese, who dominate the business sector, account for about 25 percent.
An examination of monthly household income of all three ethnic groups shows Indians are lagging behind, with average annual growth of just 3.5 percent over the five years from 2000, compared to 3.6 percent for Chinese, and 4.9 percent for Malays.
Issues that have grated on the community include a string of temple demolitions that aggrieved many Indians who felt civic authorities rode roughshod over their sentiments, and squabbles over Hindus' rights to bury relatives who converted to Islam.
Analysts say Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's ruling coalition is certain to win re-election with a healthy majority, but the growing unhappiness among the ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities is worrying the political parties in the grouping.
The Indian community has usually voted for Abdullah's Barisan Nasional coalition as the best guardian of its interests.
But that feeling has changed after the government cracked down hard on a demonstration by more than 10,000 ethnic Indians in November, using tear gas, water cannon and police batons to break up the protest, which aired charges of race discrimination.
The demonstrators complained of being deprived of education and employment opportunities.
The government used a harsh internal security law to detain five protest leaders without trial, further fuelling Indians' anger at the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), a party in Abdullah's coalition, for what they saw as its failure to protect them.
The outrage has continued to simmer, with Indians meeting at "People Power" gatherings in temples to fast and pray for the release of the prisoners, who belong to a group called the Hindu Rights Action Force, or HindRAF.
In Tangkak, one rubber tapper said she would vote against the MIC to help dislodge its leader, Works Minister Samy Vellu, calling him out of touch with poor Indians. Vellu has been a cabinet minister since 1979.
"We will make a difference not by approaching people personally, or doing a protest, but by quietly giving the vote to the right people so it shows up in the numbers," said Ayamma, 48, who wakes up at 4 a.m. each day to spend seven hours collecting about 80 litres of rubber sap from trees on a leased plot.
The MIC, with 620,000 members, says the criticism that it has done little to improve the job and educational prospects of Indians is baseless but has vowed to reshape itself to serve the community better.
Even if the entire Indian community chose to vote for the opposition, the government would still maintain a majority.
"Their number is too small to make a significant difference," political analyst Zainon Ahmad told Reuters.
Opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim said opposition parties stood to gain by tapping into the Indian voters' discontent.
"The minorities are really, really angry, and in the case of Indians that will certainly translate into votes," Anwar told Reuters, adding that the opposition would do its best to woo them with an attractive line up of candidates and election agenda.
Abdullah's government has sought to calm ruffled feelings by boosting funds for Tamil schools and agreeing to a long-standing request for a public holiday on the key Hindu festival of Thaipusam.
But ethnic issues are certain to be at the heart of the election as both ethnic Chinese and Indians complain of discrimination and favoritism towards the Malay majority.
The workers in Tangkak are particularly bitter as they see others enjoying the trappings of wealth from a burgeoning economy and soaring prices of palm oil, which is in demand as a biofuel.
"There are many Indians among the plantation workers who have helped to make the sector a success," said Anand, the plantation worker, adding that his salary had grown to 13.50 ringgit ($4) a day from 6.50 ringgit when he first began work in 1980.
"So why have they not been given a share of the remarkable achievements of all these years?"
($1=3.238 Malaysian Ringgit)
Editing by Megan Goldin