State visit avoided hard issues and gave Najib a pass on human rights, writes Asia Sentinel’s John Berthelsen
For anyone in Southeast Asia with an interest in fair, honest and even-handed government, the disappointing visit of President Barack Obama to Malaysia is a victory for political expediency that largely glossed over growing discontent over racial tensions, corruption and abuses of judicial power by the ruling coalition.
Obama, according to most reports, walked a careful line on such issues, roaming the stage at a town meeting with students to tell them the country can’t succeed if minorities are suppressed.
But the president also continued to call the prime minister a friend and reformer. What kind of friend is this exactly?
The fact is that Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak was a willing perpetrator as defense minister in the looting of the public purse to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars – in bribery and kickbacks from the French munitions maker DCN over a US$1 billion submarine deal, as well as other deals involving patrol boats that were never delivered, Russian Sukhoi jets that cost vastly more than what other countries paid and other equally dubious transactions that have been repeatedly exposed by the opposition and printed on opposition websites, to no avail.
On top of that, Najib heads a country that is slipping backwards fast on human rights issues, with its most prominent opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, facing jail for the second time on what are clearly bogus charges of sexual deviance and another, Karpal Singh, who was about to be railroaded out of parliament on specious sedition charges when he was killed in a car accident.
Other opposition leaders also face sedition charges in what Ambiga Sreenavasan, the former head of the Malaysian Bar Council, recently called “Operation Lalang by the courts,” a reference to a 1987 crackdown on dissidents that sent more than 100 people, most of them opposition leaders, to jail without trial.
Obama’s decision not to meet with Anwar “in and of itself isn’t indicative of our lack of concern, given the fact that there are a lot of people I don’t meet with and opposition leaders that I don’t meet with,” he told reporters in response to a question by CNN.
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