Southeast Asia

Malaysia: War opposition bridges divisions
By Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia - The invasion of Iraq by the United States and the United Kingdom has sparked widespread resentment and uneasiness in this Muslim-majority country, but Malaysians have differing ideas on how their outrage can be effectively conveyed to the US government and its allies.

Crossing the deep political divide that usually lies across them, representatives of all major political parties last week handed over a joint protest note to the US ambassador at the embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

On March 24, parliament unanimously approved a motion protesting the US-led invasion of Iraq. It was the second time in March that the Iraq issue had received blanket support after an unopposed motion two weeks ago condemning US threats to take unilateral action against Iraq.

Such united political responses to a crisis have been rare since the sacking and jailing of ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 created a deep political chasm and unleashed a campaign for reformasi (reformation), a clamor for wide-ranging political reforms.

Far from sparking a "clash of civilizations", the Iraq crisis has spawned overlapping and broad-based anti-war movements in Malaysia. A huge government-sponsored one and a couple of civil-society-initiated coalitions have bridged traditional ethnic, religious, social - and now even political - divides.

There seems to be a consensus on the Malaysian debate over Iraq, observed media analyst Mustafa Kamal Anuar. "But I don't know if there are differences in the way Malaysians look at the war - whether they see it as a war of aggression or a religious one.

"Generally, people are in agreement that this war is being waged by a superpower armed to the teeth against a country that has gone through almost a decade of economic sanctions, with their military defenses reduced to a minimum," he said.

In some cases, Muslim and non-Muslim groups are working together, organizing joint protest action and even taking part in inter-faith forums, discussion and prayer sessions - a rarity in Malaysia.

It is not often that Malaysians witness a Muslim imam, a Buddhist monk and a Christian priest praying before a gathering and then locking arms in solidarity, as was the case during a candlelight vigil in Penang on March 22.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has pointed out that Pope John Paul II and the Archbishop of Canterbury have both taken strong anti-war positions and cited this as proof that Christians too oppose the US-led war on Iraq.

On top of that, Mustafa added, many Malaysians see this war as being waged not only against world opinion but also without United Nations legitimacy. "On that score, I think the majority of Malaysians are in agreement in their opposition to this war," he said.

Mahathir himself has been scathing in his remarks about the invasion, pointing out that it had created an insecure place without any guarantee that terrorism would not recur. "We have returned to the Stone Age where might determines right," he said last week.

He has said he thinks UN Secretary General Kofi Annan should resign for failing to stop the war, but added that this would create a problem as the post would fall vacant. "To appoint a new one, we will have to get consent from a lot of powerful people," he said.

As the chairman of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM), Mahathir's anti-war stance carries extra weight. Malaysia is also due to host the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference this October.

The premier said NAM member countries could build up public opinion in all countries, including the US and the UK. "We do not hate the Americans. We do not want to make enemies of the United States, Britain or anyone. But we can't close our eyes to injustice and oppression," he said.

Still, the Malaysian government appears to be treading a fine line. On the one hand, it has been outspoken in its opposition to the war. On the other, it appears concerned about the economic implications of being perceived as anti-US and its effects on the investment climate and the expatriate population.

Malaysia relies heavily on foreign direct investment, with electronics and electrical products a major export. Some 20 percent of exports are shipped to the United States. Many US and British citizens are also attached to multinational firms in Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

Whether the anti-war rhetoric alone will satisfy Malaysians is the big question. So far, the Malaysian authorities have tolerated anti-war protests outside the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur and in Penang, ignoring the current ban on outdoor political gatherings. But now that the war is under way, some feel the need to look beyond anti-war gatherings and petitions to register their protest.

The chief minister of east-coast Kelantan state, Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the spiritual advisor of the opposition Islamic Party PAS, has called for a boycott of US products.

"Now is not the time to plead with and appeal to the United States because it will not listen to our plea," said PAS youth leader Mahfuz Omar, after handing in the joint protest memorandum at the US Embassy. "The time has come for stronger action against the United States."

Mahfuz called on the Malaysian government to withdraw from a five-power defense pact that also includes Britain, Australia, Singapore and New Zealand.

Some academics too want more concrete action by Malaysia. "If the government is really serious about its stand, it should suspend, as opposed to cutting off altogether, its diplomatic relations with the United States," said political-science Professor Johan Saravanamuttu. It could be a temporary measure, he added, but drive home a point.

Malaysia could also take the same action it did when Mahathir introduced a "Buy British Last" policy for most of the 1980s, Johan said. "If the premier could do it then, why can't he do it now on a much more serious issue?" he asked.

(Inter Press Service)
Apr 1, 2003

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