|Malaysia: War opposition bridges
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.
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.
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.
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
"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.
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
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
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
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.
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
Mahfuz called on the Malaysian
government to withdraw from a five-power defense pact
that also includes Britain, Australia, Singapore and New
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.
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
(Inter Press Service)