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More fuel for Malaysia's fire

Asia Times - July 27, 2011

Simon Roughneen, Bangkok Recently-released United States diplomatic cables from 2008-2010 shed light on Malaysia's political scene in the aftermath of a controversial crackdown on an opposition-backed electoral reform demonstration in Kuala Lumpur where over 1,600 people were arrested, including opposition politicians.

On July 9, Malaysia's police fired teargas and water-cannon at thousands of protesters who defied a ban on the rally, which was organized by Bersih 2.0, a coalition of non-governmental organizations that says it wants changes to how Malaysia stages elections, including the mandatory use of indelible ink to prevent voters from casting multiple ballots.

Prime Minister Najib Razak's government was widely criticized for its heavy-handed and disproportionate response to what was a peaceful demonstration by civil society groups. Putrajaya alleged the protest was a front for the ambitions of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who says he was injured during the crackdown and faces the next stage of an unrelated and controversial sodomy trial on August 8.

Hints as to why the government reacted as it did are contained in an August 2008 assessment by US ambassador James Keith, who wrote:

The ruling party wants to stay in power indefinitely, and that means Anwar and the multi-racial opposition front he is leading must fail. At least so far, there is scant evidence of a more thoughtful and forward-looking analysis within UMNO [United Malays National Organization]. In fact, the ruling party could find some common ground with the opposition if it were willing to countenance gradual development of a two-party system of checks and balances.

Najib's Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has ruled continuously since Malaysia achieved independence in 1957, with power centering around the UMNO, the mainstay of the BN coalition. Allegations of vote-rigging and manipulation have long-tarnished elections in Malaysia, which the BN has consistently won by comfortable margins. However the most recent vote, in 2008, saw the BN lose its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time and suggested that the BN's grip on power could be loosening.

In the months after the 2008 vote, the Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance) opposition had high hopes of taking power by persuading enough parliamentarians to defect from the BN to its side. Anwar declared a September 16, 2008 deadline for taking power, but the date came and went without event. This prompted some speculation that the opposition, an unwieldy amalgam of diverse political interests, was losing steam.

Before Anwar's September 2008 deadline, the US Embassy estimated that Anwar was unlikely to take power, with an August 28, 2008 cable saying that "some key Anwar aides seemed to be hedging on their leader's stated pledge to oust the government by September 16 and neutral observers were even more skeptical, but most agreed that Anwar is now enjoying a surge of momentum".

The 2008 election result was a shock to the BN and UMNO, who see street protests and electoral reforms as a threat to their monopoly on power, according to US ambassador Keith, who opined that UMNO will play the national security card as a means of "ensuring that 'people power', or a level electoral playing field, cannot become the opposition's means of toppling the ruling party".

The opposition coalition now claims that it has evidence to show that the governing parties have the means to cheat at the next elections, which are expected to be called within the next calendar year. On Tuesday, PAS, one of the People's Alliance's member-parties, said that it has compiled a "shockingly huge" list of "cloned voters", according to the party's vice-president Husam Musa.

Rather than introduce the opposition's desired indelible ink option, which has been used in other countries' elections that were subsequently declared free and fair by international observers, the Malaysian election commission has proposed instead a biometric voter verification system to eliminate multiple voting and so-called "phantom" voters.

Sharing a platform with the election commission on Tuesday, Ambiga Sreenavasan, head of the Bersih 2.0 coalition that organized the July 9 rally, expressed caution about the biometric plan, saying that it would need rigorous testing before the elections. The polls will likely to be held before legally required in 2013, as many analysts believe Najib will seeks electoral advantage from a wave of recent economic growth.

The weeks since the Bersih protest have been politically-fraught, with pro-government newspapers alleging that Jewish and Christian plots were behind the recent rally and hinting that electoral reform is a nefarious foreign-backed attempt at subverting the Malaysian state. After the July 9 rally, the pro-government Utusan, the country's biggest-selling Malay language newspaper, said that the government "cannot allow anyone, especially the Jews, to interfere secretly in this country's business".

A US cable dated January 12, 2010 gave insight to the dynamic, estimating the use of such loaded language was an attempt by Malay elites in government to rally Malay Muslims, who make up 60% of the population and are subject to Islamic law, behind the BN.

At that time, the government was trying to implement a ban on the use by non-Muslim religions of the word "Allah" to denote "God", which has long been the nomenclature in some countries where Islam is the dominant faith but where there are Christian minorities, including Malaysia. Christians represent around 9% of Malaysia's population. With PAS an ascendant force in the People's Alliance opposition, UMNO was likely trying to outdo the opposition party's Islamist zeal. According to the leaked US cable "the conventional wisdom among most non-ruling coalition Chinese and Indians, for example, seems to be that the ruling party has orchestrated the 'Allah' issue so as to increase support among Malay voters by fomenting division between Muslims on one side and Christians or secularists on the other in the opposition coalition."

The revival of such sectarian, conspiratorial tones in newspapers such as Utusan have been dismissed by Najib, who said that the anti-Semitic allegation "did not reflect the views of the government". "Regardless of their political views, it is unacceptable for anyone to stir up hatred and suspicion against any religious group in the way we have seen today," Najib's statement said.

Najib traveled to Europe in the days after the July 9 rally, meeting Queen Elizabeth II in London and then traveling to Rome to meet with Pope Benedict XVI to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See. After returning to Malaysia, he was quoted as saying somewhat quixotically that "we wish to tell our friends, the Malaysian Christians... that if they respect us, we will also respect them."

The remark sparked angry reactions from Christian clerics and online commentators, suggesting that the US Embassy view as expressed in the January 2010 cable, that the "widely and deeply held among non-Malay, non-Muslims that the Government is antagonistic toward other religions and is engaged in a long-term effort to expand Islam's primacy in Malaysian society", is not too far off the mark of what's driving Malaysian politics today.

[Simon Roughneen is a foreign correspondent. His website is www.simonroughneen.com.]

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