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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence on Friday with fireworks, flag-waving and a prayer for unity among its races and religions.
Malaysia's premier used his anniversary speech, made in the midnight hour of the nation's birth, to voice pride in the country's record of religious tolerance, but he and others hinted at recent undercurrents of social tension.
"We must take care of our unity and we must be ready to destroy any threat which may affect our unity," Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told tens of thousands of Malaysians who had turned out in the capital's main square to see the fireworks.
Malaysia is dominated politically by ethnic Malays, who are Muslims and see themselves as the natural rulers and indigenous race. But they make up only a slender majority -- ethnic Chinese and Indians account for almost 40 percent of the population.
The social melting pot, partly a legacy of colonial times when former ruler Britain imported Chinese and Indian labour to work mines and plantations, has left Malaysia with a major challenge to keep the peace between the races.
With conservative Islam on the rise in Malaysia, non-Muslims have begun to complain that their constitutional right to freedom of worship and to secular government are being compromised.
The Malay deputy premier recently called Malaysia an Islamic state, angering non-Muslims. Increasingly, leaders of the multi-racial government are urging Malaysians to heed the lessons of 1969, when racial tensions burst into deadly riots.
On Friday morning, as flag-waving Malaysians again streamed into Merdeka (Freedom) Square for the main daytime celebrations, some Christian groups prayed for unity at churches nationwide.
"Today, after 50 years of nationhood, we realise that we cannot take unity-in-diversity for granted. What divides us has become more accentuated than what unites us," the Christian Federation of Malaysia said in a "national day message".
"Signs of polarisation along ethnic and religious lines, along with all forms of chauvinism, racism and superiority are eroding our national unity."
But in Merdeka Square, as helicopters sprinkled the crowd with powder in the red, white, blue and yellow colours of the national flag, thoughts of religious and racial tension gave way to a party atmosphere.
Thousands of dancers, a choir of around 2,300 teachers and 1,000 drummers performed patriotic songs, watched by Abdullah, Malaysia's king and queen and dozens of foreign dignitaries, including the British queen's representative, Prince Andrew.
The leaders of six other Southeast Asian nations also gathered on the podium to watch the celebrations, which included a fly-past by Malaysia's new Russian-made fighter jets.
"I am happy to live in Malaysia. There is unity here," said Hew Kam Yean, 30, an ethnic Chinese insurance agent who came to the square with her 4-year-old son and her husband, who flew a small Malaysian flag from his baseball cap.
But 62-year-old ethnic Indian S.K. Lingam, a taxi driver, was in a more reflective mood and said that despite the show of unity, Malaysia's races had drifted apart in recent years.
"Two decades ago, when I used to be in the merchant navy, we used to gather together on weekends for BBQs and parties. It didn't matter what religion we were ... Over the last few years, people don't seem to get together on weekends too much."