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Southeast Asia

Malaysia in political stalemate

Prof. Murray Hunter

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Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib is facing accusations of fraud with the 1MDB fiasco, and the murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaaribuu, while the economy is going into a ‘nosedive’.

After six and a half years in office, Premier Najib presides over a nation with contracting growth, rising inflation, growing unemployment, a Ringgit at a 20 year low against the US Dollar, significant capital flight, a massive debt problem, disappearing sources of income, and low consumer confidence.

Although some of these problems are the result of global factors such as declining oil and gas prices, low commodity prices, and sluggish growth of major trading partners, Malaysia’s problems also greatly exist today as the result of policy failures. Extremist policies have also led to social and ethnic tensions within the country. In addition, the depreciation of the Ringgit and introduction of the GST have put undue hardships on the people.

Malaysia is going through a very intense period of political infighting at the highest echelons of power within the dominant party within the Barisan Nasional (BN), UMNO. Premier Najib recently sacked his Deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, and other ministers and officials in desperation to maintain his grip on power, while the former PM Dr. Mahathir is leading a vanguard of senior UMNO stalwarts to remove Najib from office.

Within corporate Malaysia, there is now a deep realization about how fast Malaysia is falling behind the rest of the world. Many believe that the Prime Minister has not grappled with the real problems facing the nation. This thinking according to sources goes right to the board rooms of companies like Sime Darby and Petronas, some of the premier financial institutions of the land, as well as a number of Royal Households.

However there is a large split in thinking about how to solve the problem, as the Mahathir forces are still viewed with great suspicion by many sections of royalty. Thus any possibility of him being an immediate interim prime minister would never be considered. There is also a general distain for the weak and incompetent opposition in the country, which instead of showing leadership has allowed infighting to surface publicly and dissolve the Pakatan Rakyat.

Consequently, there is no planned takeover of power, coup, of method to remove Najib from office in existence. The prevailing view is one of being stunned and a feeling of impotence, as Premier Najib has managed to centralize most power in the country around the Prime Minister’s position.

The immediate task at hand for Premier Najib was to deliver a national budget. There has been massive revenue shrinkage due to falling oil revenue and a corresponding reduction of dividends paid by Petronas to government consolidated revenue. The unpopular GST will not make up the projected short falls over the coming years, which will increase the budget deficit, if government spending is not drastically reduced. This would be politically unpalatable, particularly at a time when Najib is so unpopular. Najib also has to contend with growing unemployment and will be pressured to maintain infrastructure spending, so lucrative contracts can continue to be given out to his supporters.

The flip side for Najib is that with the falling Ringgit, and rising debt, ratings agencies will be looking for fiscal responsibility in the budget. A fiscally irresponsible budget could increase capital flight which is already a major problem for Malaysia’s balance of payments.

Najib has tried to do all this. He has chosen the path to spur the economy through nine infrastructure projects, of which a high proportion are in rural areas, Sabah and Sarawak. In addition, a lot of ‘sweeteners’ have been added into the budget, which are no doubt aimed at shoring up his popular base. From this point of view, it could be construed as an election budget, giving Najib the option to call a snap election, if necessary. At the same time a number of reforms for the civil service have been announced as well as a projection of a lower budget deficit of 3.2% of GDP, down from 6.7% the year before, in an attempt to win support of ratings agencies.

It’s a budget that BN members of Parliament would find it difficult to vote against, due to the large numbers of specific programs benefitting their individual electorates.

The weak opposition has become Premier Najib’s great strength. PAS President Aman Hadi’s push for HUDUD laws eventually broke up the opposition alliance, Pakatan Rakyat. In addition Hadi’s indecisiveness on whether PAS would support any no confidence motion against Najib in parliament this week was seen by many in the opposition as treacherous.

The handling of the no confidence motion showed complete incompetence. The fact that DAP MP Hee Loy Sia filed a motion of no confidence before PKR leader Wan Azizah, has led to questions in the local media about whether the new alliance Pakatan Harapan actually wants to remove Najib from office. The opposition seemed to be more interested in who would make the motion of no confidence, rather than actually making this symbolic move in parliament, which would have failed anyway, due to lack of numbers of support the motion.

Others felt that the whole matter of a no confidence motion was just a waste of time, as there is no chance of and mass defection of Barisan MPs. UMNO backbenchers have shown no sign of wavering, as have Sabah and Sarawak MPs, along with Gerakan and MCA members.

There is also worry about the opposition’s policy proposals to solve the financial crisis. The opposition proposal to put 1MDB into administration in Wan Azizah’s budget speech would only lead to an asset fire sale. In addition, blocking TNB from taking over 1MDB assets is just sabotaging any initiatives to reduce debt.

There is no end game in sight.

It is rumoured that Najib’s mother and at least one brother has asked him to make a deal with Dr. Mahathir on safe passage out of Malaysia and immunity from prosecution. However, upon Najib’s wife, Rosnah’s insistence, he is taking up the fight to survive with a new and ruthless political secretary in charge. Such a deal anyhow would provide Najib with no guarantee, as Dr. Mahathir has no legal or political standing to make such a deal.

No doubt, Najib will pass through this session of parliament with the partisan speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia, and the UMNO AGM in December. In theory Najib can continue right up to 2018 as party president and prime minister. However, the pressure of a quickly deteriorating economy and a poor budget reception could change that timing, particularly is any other unforeseen event arises over the next few months.

The advantage to Najib is the extremely poorly coordinated opposition that has shown itself to be in disarray with the PAS/Parti Amanah Negara (PAN) split. Ironically, Dr. Mahathir looks and appears to be the only effective opposition leader in Malaysia today. Yet the Mahathir forces themselves are also impotent (something he admitted himself) against the Najib forces which control the powerful PM’s office, ministers, UMNO, and police.

Overall, Mahathir has been disappointing in his handling of Najib, which has only in reality showed up his impotence in standing up to his old protégé. He has failed to show the strength he once had as a leader and politician.

Muhyiddin and Tunku Razaleigh have primarily been on the side-lines, unwilling to take any lead.

Najib’s best action would be to go for an immediate snap election after the budget and catch the opposition ‘off guard’, and weaken them further. By placing his people in winnable seats, Najib could further his strength within UMNO and government, and even weaken the Mahathir forces mortally.

The recent poll stating the unpopularity of UMNO and its leader with the Malay electorate was urban biased, thus such a result would be expected. The general election is won or lost in the heartland, not the urban areas, so UMNO can still win.

However, there would be very little incentive to do this as parliament still has two years to run until an election is needed. Nevertheless, it could be tempting to wipe out PKR, PAS, and Harapan Baru all at once, as PAS is likely to stand candidates against PKR and DAP leading to three-cornered contests. The opposition also has a major credibility gap with the Malaysian public.

A new parliament after an election would most probably be dominated by UMNO and DAP, which is set to make massive gains.

Najib’s best and only option open to him at the moment is to stay in power to protect himself, and the interests of his family’s businesses, controlled by his brothers Nazir, Ahmad Johari, Mohamed Nizam, and Mohamed Nazin Razak. These business interests include a number of high profile corporate assets, entangled with a number of close associates including Tan Kay Hock, Shahril Shamsuddin, Mohamed Azman Yahya, Rohana Mahmood, Azman Mokhtar, Mohd. Nadzmi Mohd. Salleh, and others, who could stand to lose many of their assets should Najib no longer be prime minister.

Najib seems very hesitant to go the election track and may rely on police repression to maintain his grip on power for the time being. Najib’s new DPM Zaid is like a ‘pitball’ and his new political secretary Muhd Khairun Aseh Che Mat has shown himself to be a ruthless political operator. Attacks on dissenters and the arrests of those trying to expose Najib, like Khairuddin and Matthius Chang under the anti-terror SOSMA laws, shows what Malaysia may be install for in the near future.

This would leave the leadership crisis in stalemate, where Najib can choose his own time to step down, while the economy continues to deteriorate into the foreseeable future.

To this point in time, primarily due to the lack of incentive to unite, Najib’s detractors are powerless to make any decisive constitutional moves against him.

No one is able to convince to UMNO/BN politicians, except for the Najib forces, who are keeping a tight rein on them. So any move by former senior UMNO leaders to push for an interim government through the parliament and constitution is not a possibility.

Najib, who was once Dr. Mahathir’s protégé has proven himself to be more skilful and cunning than the master.

Yet the biggest tragedy for Malaysia is that the Najib regime has no vision for Malaysia, and thus the longer he stays, the more damage that will be done.

There is also little hope in any post-Najib era as well. The opposition is only coming out with ad hoc policy measures, which may even make worse some of the problems, and the Mahathir forces are totally silent about what they would do.

Innovator and entrepreneur. Notable author, thinker and prof. Hat Yai University, Thailand Contact: murrayhunter58(at)gmail.com

Southeast Asia

Could Malaysia’s Political Feuds Let the 1MDB Scandal’s Architect Through the Cracks?

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From gifting Basquiat paintings to Leonardo di Caprio to pouring millions of dollars in champagne over himself and Paris Hilton, allegations of outrageous exploits and profligate spending surrounding fugitive Malaysian financier Jho Low are being read about across the globe—but not in the UK.

That is because Low’s lawyers have used Britain’s notoriously strict libel laws to effectively muzzle Billion Dollar Whale, a new book from investigative journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope that describes the playboy banker’s alleged role in siphoning off more than $4 billion from Malaysian sovereign investment fund 1MDB. Even though the book was released amid critical praise on September 18th, anyone in the UK will be hard-pressed to find a copy in their local independent bookstore— or even on the UK websites of Amazon, Waterstones, or WH Smiths. Not a single UK-based publisher agreed to take on the book due to fears over libel suits.

The Guardian published an expose this week detailing the efforts of London-based law firm Schillings to suppress the book’s sale in Britain. Low’s lawyers have tried to head off the book’s distribution by sending intimidating letters threatening to sue booksellers across the world. Outside of the UK, however, this legal campaign has failed to curb the book’s launch. The Australian owner of Boomerang Books, for example, simply rejected the threat as lawyers “blowing smoke“ and refused to take the book off shelves.

While his attorneys threaten booksellers, Low has also launched a website proclaiming his innocence and disputing allegations of his involvement in corruption, going so far as to claim his astounding wealth—at one point, Low may have had access to more liquid cash than anyone in history—comes from inheritance. A staggering inheritance is less likely than Billion Dollar Whale’s assertion that Low managed to get Goldman Sachs to transfer $3 billion of Malaysian state funds into a private Swiss bank account. Low allegedly used the stolen money to, among other things, bankroll the film Wolf of Wall Street and purchase a $250 million superyacht.

Low’s alleged role as mastermind in the 1MDB scandal may be the focus of Billion Dollar Whale, but nonagenarian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed has instead zeroed in on predecessor and onetime protégé Najib Razak. Last week, Najib’s lawyer Muhammad Shafee was detained on money laundering charges. Najib himself was then arrested on September 19th and is now awaiting trial on more than 20 counts, with anticorruption agency officials hinting at more charges still to come.

The 93-year-old Mahathir has previously stated that he has the “almost perfect case” to convict his disciple-turned-enemy. As Mahathir’s young government has moved against them, however, Najib and Shafee have pushed back. Najib has repeatedly insisted that he believes Mahathir’s focus on his role in the corruption scandal is politically motivated. He also claims the $681 million bank deposit at the heart of the money laundering accusations against him was a donation from the Saudi royal family, an assertion the Saudi government backed in 2016. Shafee revisited the details of the funds transfer this week following Najib’s arrest, pointing out that the former PM returned the vast majority of the $681 million and disputing the money laundering charges against his client as “illogical.”

While Mahathir doggedly pursues Najib, he seems to be making less of an effort to pursue or apprehend Jho Low and the billions the financier allegedly pilfered. Why the discrepancy? The answer likely lies in Mahathir’s own past as a member of the same class of strongman as the Philippine’s Ferdinand Marcos and Indonesia’s Suharto, as well as his personal history with Najib.

Mahathir may have only come to power in May, but he has already served a nearly two-decade term as Prime Minister that earned him an international reputation for ugly ethnic politics and strongarm tactics. He ushered in the “Malaysia Inc.” policy that tried to follow the Japanese model of nationalizing certain industries, but is best known for the failed nationalization of the automotive industry and the Malaysia-produced Proton car. He is also known for throwing another potential successor, Anwar Ibrahim, out of power and into prison on sodomy charges suspected to be politically motivated.

Ironically enough, Mahathir retook power this year by campaigning on the return of rule of law and an end to corruption – and is once again pointing to Anwar as his anointed successor. More than a few observers suspect Mahathir’s aspirations to return to office were born less out of any interest in saving his country, and more from a desire to wreak political vengeance on his former ally. Najib, who came to power in 2009, oversaw the reversal of many of Mahathir’s policies. Steps such as rolling back import tariffs on automobiles to the detriment of the Malaysian Proton led Mahathir to perceive Najib as undoing his political legacy.

With this personal animus playing out in the Malaysian press over the past few years, Mahathir’s current persecution of Najib risks crossing the line separating a fair judicial process from the jailing of a political rival. Asian affairs analysts have raised the specter of Mahathir using Najib as a scapegoat to avoid genuine reform. It was, after all, under Mahathir’s previous tenure that shady backroom dealings and authoritarian behavior became the norm in Malaysia.

With that track record, it certainly seems illogical to hope the man most emblematic of Malaysia’s old guard will steer the country back towards democracy after finishing with Najib. Mahathir will allegedly hand off power after two years per the terms of his agreement with Anwar Ibrahim. Two years is a long time in the context of Malaysia’s unpredictable politics and the rumblings of discontent with the arrangement within the ruling coalition.

In the interim, the new government’s single-minded focus on Najib could help Jho Low fly as low under the radar in Malaysia as he has in the UK.

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Southeast Asia

Will There Ever Be Justice For Rohingya Muslims?

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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There is an image engraved in our minds of a stoic, reserved, elegant Aung San Suu Kyi unbending in her struggle against Burma’s generals for democracy, and we assumed for human rights.  Last year, when the refugees streamed out of her country in the wake of atrocities, it blocked all UN agencies from delivering food, water and medicine to affected civilians; her office accused aid workers of helping terrorists.

Her iconic stature long gone, she made a public appearance the day after the International Fact-Finding Mission released its initial 20-page overview to the UN Human Rights Council on August 27, 2018.  The damning evidence of murder, rape, torture, persecution, burned villages, landmines along escape routes reported on by NGOs and news media over the past year had been confirmed.  Elegant and patrician as usual, Aung San Suu Kyi discoursed on poetry and literature.  No mention of the genocide or the UN report.  No longer an icon, there have been calls to relieve her of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The UN group criticized her for her continued refusal to condemn the genocide.  The full report detailing unspeakable horrors in its 440-page account has now been released (September 18, 2018).  What might surprise people is a simple shocking fact:  This is not the first UN report on Rohingya massacres.

On February 3, 2017, the UN issued a detailed account of the military’s operations in north Maungddaw with “the very likely commission of crimes against humanity.”  It recounted the murders, rapes and tortures that have now become the trademark of military operations against the Rohingya.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein is quoted as saying ” … what kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk.  And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces that should be protecting her.”

There were no major consequences for Myanmar then and what happened the following summer was the same magnified over Rakhine state.  As a result we have 700,000 refugees, and they are still coming — “11,342 new arrivals as of mid-June this year,” Mr. Zeid has noted.

Will this time be different?  Following the UN Commission’s summary report, 160 British parliamentarians across party lines signed a petition to Prime Minister Theresa May to refer the Myanmar military to the International Criminal Court (ICC).  The UN report accuses the military of genocide, and identifies six generals, singling them out for investigation and prosecution.  They are, the senior general who heads the military, the commander of the army, and four operational commanders.

ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has now been authorized to begin a preliminary investigation to gather evidence before launching a full investigation.  Myanmar is not a signatory to the Rome Statute establishing the ICC but Bangladesh hosting the refugees is, thus giving the court jurisdiction.

Marzuki Darusman providing details of massacres and unmentionable atrocities said in reporting to the Human Rights Council, “I have never been confronted by crimes as horrendous and on such a scale as these.”

If the UN Security Council is to be stymied by veto — China preventing any action against Myanmar — will the ICC effort also fizzle out in practice if not in theory?  Justice remains tenuous for the weak and powerless in our world.

Author’s Note:  This article first appeared on counterpunch.org

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Southeast Asia

Seven Years of UNITE Thailand: Freedom to be Free

Rattana Lao

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An art camp in Loei Province with the painting of UNITE Thailand on the theme of “our home” done by Archee. photo: Rattana Lao

BANGKOK – During the peak of Thailand’s political warfare between the Red and Yellow shirts, I was a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University pursuing a Doctorate in Political Science with a specialization in Comparative and International Education.

As Bangkok’s buildings were burnt down, I sat in tears in front of my computer could not comprehend nor tolerate the sights and senses of such catastrophe.

What’s happening to Thailand? A place we once called the land of smile.

I put myself together and defended my proposal. I came home for my dissertation research. But once I landed, I began something entirely different.

I called my friends from all walks of lives: academics, businesses, politics and civil society and we started talking about the future of Thailand what to do, what can we do?

Inspired by the KEEPS project at the London School of Economics, where I did my Master of Sciences in Development Studies, we initiated an art project for political liberation.

Something Freire would be proud of.

We took paint colors, brushes and canvases to rural areas and began using art as mean to break political deadlocks – to initiate a conversation. We asked our students to paint the future of Thailand in their visions.

From a humble beginning in 2011, we grew in size and scope. UNITE Thailand is now a global youth networks of like-minded individuals who want to make a difference for Thailand. We are an educational project with 3,000 members.

We have collaborated with the Open Society Foundation in 2012 to create the 1st IDEA Asia Youth Forum where we brought together 200 Asia youth from 22 countries to work with Thai university students in Thailand for 2 weeks.

We have worked with the International Labour Organizations in 2013 – 2014VDO to promote the Sapansiang Campaign that addresses the positive images of migrant workers in Thailand.

Anna Olsen, the Technical Specialist TRIANGLE in ASEAN program of the ILO said, “working with UNITE Thailand allowed us to reach young Thai people with our messages of protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers who contribute so much to Thai society and development.”

Since its inception, MCOT Thailand and the Anandamahidol Foundation have helped to scale up our 20 art camps for our students nation-wide by creating ongoing documentaries that capture the essences of what we try to do on the ground.

Sitting here on the eve of International Youth Day of 2018, I am writing to my students globally that never let anyone tell us what we are and are not capable of. The power of the young is momentous and paramount. Never let your inspiration, motivation and determination die down just because what we think seem impossible or someone else tell us so.

Thailand is far from where we want it to be. It’s still rotten with corruption, rampant inequality and lack democracy. But each brush we stroke, each project we strike, we do it with hope and dignity, we do it to empower and we aspire to make a difference.

Mayaclear Aphornsuvan, UNITE Thailand Youth Representative, encapsulates her seven years experiences with the movement.

“Opportunities, dreams, and chances seem so far away when no one is by your side. That’s how it felt to me when I was in high school, at least. But I crossed paths with UNITE Thailand by chance, and it was the first time a group of people believed in me. And in turn, this gave me all the strength I needed to believe in myself and others. UNITE Thailand gives opportunities to those who often get ignored. But the first opportunity in one’s life is oftentimes the most important.  UNITE Thailand means the world to me, because they gave me a whole new world of opportunity and dreams.”

On behalf of UNITE Thailand, we thank our friends from all over the world for showering us with your trust and enabling us to keep dreaming.

We, 3,000 of UNITE Thailand, dedicate this project to His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama the ninth to the Chakri Dynasty, our King of Education, for not only sponsoring my transatlantic education through the Anandamahidol Foundation, but for providing Thailand with a necessary guiding light. We wish his soul rest in peace. We wish him well.

We promise to be kind and find peace from within outward.

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