Embattled former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was the main loser in last month’s election upset that returned Mahathir Mohamad to power as his country’s anti-corruption crusader. Yet, Mr. Razak is not the only one who may be paying the price for allegedly non-transparent and unaccountable governance.
So is Saudi Arabia with a Saudi company having played a key role in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal in which Mr. Razak is suspected to have overseen the siphoning off of at least US$4.5 billion and the Saudi government seemingly having gone out of its way to provide him political cover.
While attention has focussed largely on the re-opening of the investigation of Mr. Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, both of whom have been banned from travel abroad and have seen their homes raided by law enforcement, Saudi Arabia has not escaped policymakers’ consideration. Mr. Razak has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.
The geopolitical fallout of the scandal is becoming increasingly evident. Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu suggested this week that Malaysia was re-evaluating the presence of Malaysian troops in Saudi Arabia, dispatched to the kingdom as part of the 41-nation, Saudi-sponsored Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC).
“The ATM (Malaysian Armed Forces) presence in Saudi Arabia has indirectly mired Malaysia in the Middle East conflict… The government will make a decision on the matter in the near future after a re-evaluation has been completed,” said Mr. Sabu, who is known for his critical view of Saudi Arabia.
In a commentary published late last year that suggests a potential Malaysian re-alignment of its Middle Eastern relationships, Mr. Sabu noted that Saudi wrath has been directed “oddly, (at) Turkey, Qatar, and Iran…three countries that have undertaken some modicum of political and economic reforms. Instead of encouraging all sides to work together, Saudi Arabia has gone on an offensive in Yemen, too. Therein the danger posed to Malaysia: if Malaysia is too close to Saudi Arabia, Putrajaya would be asked to choose a side.”
Putrajaya, a city south of Kuala Lumpur, is home to the prime minister’s residence.
Mr. Sabu went on to say that “Malaysia should not be too close to a country whose internal politics are getting toxic… For the lack of a better word, Saudi Arabia is a cesspool of constant rivalry among the princes. By this token, it is also a vortex that could suck any country into its black hole if one is not careful. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is governed by hyper-orthodox Salafi or Wahhabi ideology, where Islam is taken in a literal form. Yet true Islam requires understanding Islam, not merely in its Quranic form, but Quranic spirit.”
Since coming to office, Mr. Sabu has said that he was also reviewing plans for a Saudi-funded anti-terrorism centre, the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP), which was allocated 16 hectares of land in Putrajaya by the Razak government. Mr. Sabu was echoing statements by Mr. Mahathir before the election.
Compounding potential strains in relations with Saudi Arabia, Seri Mohd Shukri Abdull, Mr. Mahathir’s newly appointed anti-corruption czar, who resigned from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in 2016 as a result of pressure to drop plans to indict Mr. Razak, noted that “we have had difficulties dealing with Arab countries (such as)…Saudi Arabia…”
The investigation is likely to revisit 1MDB relationship’s with Saudi energy company PetroSaudi International Ltd, owned by Saudi businessman Tarek Essam Ahmad Obaid as well as prominent members of the kingdom’s ruling family who allegedly funded Mr. Razak.
It will not have been lost on Saudi Arabia that Mr. Mahathir met with former PetroSaudi executive and whistle blower Xavier Andre Justo less than two weeks after his election victory.
A three-part BBC documentary, The House of Saud: A Family at War, suggested that Mr. Razak had worked with Prince Turki bin Abdullah, the son of former Saudi King Abdullah, to syphon off funds from 1MDB.
Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir came to Mr. Razak’s rescue in 2016 by declaring that US$681 million transferred into the prime minister’s personal bank account was a “genuine donation with nothing expected in return.”
The Malaysian election as well as seeming Saudi complicity in the corruption scandal that toppled Mr. Razak has global implications, particularly for the United States and China, global powers who see support of autocratic and/or corrupt regimes as the best guarantee to maintain stability.
It is a lesson that initially was apparent in the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
The rollback of the achievements of most of those revolts backed by autocratic leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates bent on reshaping the Middle East and North Africa in their mould has contributed to the mayhem, violence and brutal repression engulfing the region.
In addition, autocratic rule has failed to squash widespread economic and social discontent. Middle Eastern states, including Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon Iran, and most recently Jordan have witnessed protests against rising prices, cuts in public spending and corruption.
“The public dissatisfaction, bubbling up in several countries, is a reminder that even more urgent action is needed,” warned Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Elections, if held at all, more often than not fail to serve as a corrective in the Middle East and North Africa because they are engineered rather than a free and fair reflection of popular will. Elections in countries like Iraq and Lebanon serve as exceptions that confirm the rule while Iran represents a hybrid.
As a result, street protests, militancy and violence are often the only options available to those seeking change.
Against that backdrop, Malaysia stands out as an example of change that does not jeopardize stability. It is but the latest example of Southeast Asian nations having led the way in producing relatively peaceful political transitions starting with the 1986 popular revolt in the Philippines, the 1998 toppling of Suharto in Indonesia, and Myanmar’s 2010 transition away from military dictatorship.
This is true even if Southeast Asia also demonstrates that political transition is a decades-long process that marches to the tune of Vladimir Lenin’s principle of two steps forward, one step backwards as it witnesses a backslide with the rise in the Philippines of President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarianism, stepped up jihadist activity, the 2014 military coup in Thailand, increasingly autocratic rule in Cambodia, the rise of conservatism and intolerance in Indonesia, and the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
If anything, Malaysia constitutes an anti-dote.
“Malaysia’s institutions proved more resilient…and descent into authoritarianism has been averted – offering a lesson not only to aspiring dictators, but to those in the United States who argue that propping up corrupt leaders is in U.S. interests,” said Alex Helan, a security and anti-corruption consultant.
Calibrating Vietnam’s role in ASEAN in 2021
Vietnam handed over the ASEAN chairmanship baton to Brunei in November 2020, but at the same time also handed over the agenda for the 2021 summit. During the informal ministerial meeting which was convened on March 2, 2021 through web conference discussions were held so as to implement the ASEAN community vision 2025 as well as making commitments with regard to ASEAN initiatives related to COVID-19 pandemic.
The agenda of Brunei is also varied with regard to improving ASEAN’s external relations as well as addressing regional security issues which are challenging as well as complex. The military coup in Myanmar is one thing which has really galvanized the support from different ASEAN member States. It is expected that the Myanmar return to democracy would be a very pressing problem for many member states. It is also reiterated during the Chairperson’s statement on the ASEAN informal meeting where it has buttressed that political stability in the Southeast Asian nations is critical.
In the statement, the new Chair of ASEAN also referred to the issue of unity, centrality and maintaining the relevance of the organization to address common security challenges. He also talked about the principles which have been addressed in the ASEAN charter and interestingly reference has been made with regard to democracy and constitutional government. In fact, in the post COVID – 19 scenario, it is expected that addressing this challenge through collective organizational response as well as under taking all those initiatives which have beenoutlined during the last year summit under the chairmanship of Vietnam. The implementation plan of the ASEAN’s organization comprehensive recovery framework needs to be evaluated and should be put into practice in a more time bound manner.
Further, within Southeast Asia activating travel corridors, and integrating the medical emergencies response teams within the region would be vital. The issue of ASEAN regional reserve of medical supplies related to public health emergencies and better interaction between the medical professionals would help in addressing the future pandemics in a better way. ASEAN’s centrality and unity has been seen under stress in recent times. Therefore, the new chair Brunei will have to strengthen existing mechanisms to promote trust and confidence among the members. Also, many dialogue partners have been highlighting this issue of freedom of navigation in the Indo- Pacific region. ASEAN has already outlined its outlook related to Indo- Pacific and rationalising their expectations with dialogue partners. The evolving situation in Korean Peninsula is also of concern for the ASEAN countries as many have strong trade links with the Republic of Korea. In the informal meeting issues such as the developments in Myanmar, Rohingya refugees, and repatriation process for displaced persons in the Rakhine state were highlighted.
Under the chairmanship of Vietnam last year, ASEAN has been able to address the repercussions due to the COVID- 19 pandemic, and has also roped in the US for providing financial aid and material assistance for the ASEAN countries. The US had committed to more than US $ 87 million for providing medicines, emergency healthcare equipment, and material assistance to combat the pandemic in Southeast Asia. The proposal which was pondered upon in the year 2020 has been with regard to US-ASEAN smart cities partnership. This is expected to bring about better transportation, connectivity and water management in targeted cities in the Southeast Asian region. Also, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has outlined new programmes and has proposed a programme which will help this region in modernising technology and engineering institutes as well as promoting this region as a technological hub.
Brunei which has been very cautious in making any comments related to South China Sea will have to steer the organisation to address this huge issue related to the sovereignty claims of China in the contested region. Similarly, issues related to dams on Mekong River, and implementing the ASEAN charter and the agreement related to regional comprehensive economic partnership needs to be rationalized. In fact, during the ASEAN meetings which were held last year under the chairmanship of Vietnam, it was stated that it is important to develop consensus on common protocols related to public health emergencies. Even decisions were taken with regard to developing coordination mechanisms related to medical research, providing of vaccines and undertaking social countermeasures against the COVID- 19 pandemic.
While evaluating the reports related to the blueprint for the ASEAN community in 2020, it was stated that there is a need for time bound discussions and negotiations so that the ASEAN community process could be completed in time. Few other issues which were highlighted and discussed during the last year meetings such as digital connectivity, food security, renewable energy, and improving financial stability and market access across ASEAN would be discussed again in the meeting in March and April in Brunei. During the discussions last year, it was also stated that there is need for concluding a Code of Conduct (CoC)in the South China Sea in an agreed time frame which should adhere to the international law and should outline the punitive action against the recalcitrant countries which become signatories to the CoC.
The growing militarisation in South China Sea specially because of US and China tensions has also compelled many claimant countries to take note of the developments and solicit support from the international community. Vietnam has been assiduously successful ingalvanising international support related to South China Sea, and has asked many of the European nations as well as the US to pressurise China to maintain peace and tranquility in the South China Sea. The expectations for the current chair Brunei will be high given the fact that it has been very categorical and cautious with regard to outlining it statement related to the contentious subjects. One critical aspect which will require better fund management an institutional support among the ASEAN member states would be related to public health emergencies, and also inoculating large population across Southeast Asia. Selecting the most effective vaccine among many would be another arduous task. It would be interesting to note that how in Brunei the issues related to gender equality, women empowerment would be addressed given the fact that it is a conservative Muslim society.
Timor Leste has been requesting for ASEAN membership for quite a long, and it would be prudent to at least induct the country as an observer. It would require the ASEAN countries to handhold the Timor Leste in paving the way for its full-fledged membership but it is also important that the capacities with regard to undertaking so many meetings and participation in as a network would require better management as well as development of human resources that can undertake this kind of intensive meetings and workshops related to the region itself. The agenda which have been started in the last year needs continued support and also careful handling so that the issues related to the US, and ASEAN community building as well as other security challenges of the regional and international powers could be addressed without annoying one and while matching each power so that ASEAN remain central to the larger regional security perspective. Vietnam has given ideas and even new proposals, it would have to direct narrative and discourse to logical conclusions in the year 2021.
Biden administration’s policy towards Vietnam, and the South China Sea
The one big question loomed large about Biden administration and it was whether there be a change in Biden administration with regard to its policy towards South China Sea in comparison to Trump? The question became irrelevant when the new US administration buttressed the statement made by Mike Pompeo in July 2020.
In July 2020, Mike Pompeo the then Secretary of State has clearly outlined the US position on Chinese maritime claims related to South China Sea. It clearly stated that US intends to preserve peace and stability as well as reinforce ‘freedom of the seas’ in accordance with the international law and assist in unimpeded flow of commerce, and protect the interests of the ASEAN claimant countries. It also stated that the ‘PRCs predatory world view has no place in the 21st century’.
With the coming of Joe Biden as the new president of the US, the US state department during the press briefing conducted on February 19th clearly stated that the US has serious concerns with regard to the China’s Coast Guard law which allows the use of force by the Chinese Coast Guard against other countries. This language was seen as intimidatory and also enforces China’s claims in the territorial and maritime disputes of East China Sea and South China Sea by force.
During the press briefing it was clearly stated that the language which is enshrined in the new Coast Guard law allows Chinese Coast Guard to destroy the economic structures of other countries. Its projected apprehensions that this would legalize use of force from Chinese perspective in order to enforce its claims in disputed areas. In this press briefing the US buttressed the fact that it stands by its statement which was made on July 13, 2020 by the then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo which was related to the maritime claims of China in South China Sea. It also stated that it is adherent to the alliance commitments that it has made towards the Philippines and Japan.
The US policy towards South China Sea particularly in the context of the US economic and strategic interests in the region can be seen from the fact that the US deployed its one of the advanced submarines USS Ohio (guided missile nuclear submarine) in the contested waters. This clearly means that there is no digression from the Trump policy towards China, and Joe Biden is keen to pressurise China to desist from threatening its neighbours with regard to its claim in the region. The State Department spokesperson Edward Price has stated “We remind the PRC and all those forces operate in the South China Sea that responsible maritime act with professionalism and restraint in the exercise of their authorities.”
In fact, developments in South China Sea have also been discussed during the recent Quad meeting held on February 18th between the foreign ministers of the four countries- the US, Japan, Australia and India, and also reflected during the meeting of the new Secretary of State Antony Blinken with his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi. Antony Blinken has bolstered the fact that the Senkaku islands located in the sovereign territory of Japan falls under the security treaty obligations of the US.
Following the telephonic meeting of the Quad, it has been seen that countries such as Australia, Japan and the US would continue their patrolling in South China Sea. In the January 2020,the US aircraft carrier group had also sailed through the South China Sea for promoting freedom of the seas. Australia has also taken strong stance following its fall out with China, and Australian defence minister during its interactions with his US counterpartLloyd J. Austin in late January 2020 stated that the US and Australia would continue to work with alliance partners to maintain security, and enforce inclusive and rules-based order in South China Sea. Earlier also the Pentagon had issued a statement that maintaining ‘a free and open Indo-Pacific based on contemporary international law and norms should be free from malign behaviour’. Even Australia has stated the fact that Chinese activities in South China Sea in a ‘disturbing manner’ has complicated Australia security environment.
It has been seen that Joe Biden is also towing the line of its predecessor Donald Trump, and has been deploying ships and submarines to the contested region. As per the news reports the USS Ohio deployment in South China Sea shows that the US is willing to take more aggressive stance to protect its allies and also maintain security of Taiwan. In that context the Washington has dispatched guided missile destroyer USS McCain to Taiwan straits and the same destroyer had sailed through Paracel islands to challenge illegal maritime claims of China. The more deployment of submarines clearly shows that the US wants to undercut the deterrence capabilities that China usually displays by deploying its submarines in South China Sea. While China proclaims that it has effective carrier killer missile and anti-ship capabilities but it has not has upgraded its anti-submarine warfare in that context. The US Ohio can carry nearly 154 tomahawk cruise missiles and these cruise missiles can deliver effective impact given the fact that each missile can carry nearly 453 kilos of highly explosive warhead.
The stealth capabilities of a large nuclear submarine with that kind of a punch are an enigma for a country like China. In terms of technological superiority, particularly in underwater operations, and lethality the US is far ahead of Chinese capabilities. Chinese anti-submarine capabilities are developed to operate closer to the shores rather than in the open seas. Given the fact that Ohio has a stealth advantage therefore it will be difficult for China to detect it even closer to its shores. It is believed that the US will be deploying more of its aircraft carriers and submarines so as to deter China and monitor its assertive activities. It has been seen that China has become too much intimidating to the Taiwan and also is closely guarding the approach route to Taiwan through the South China Sea.
During the opening weeks of the Biden administration, it has clearly indicated that many of the Trump administration policies towards China will continue unimpeded. The US Navy would conduct regular ‘freedom of navigation operations’ and in early February the US Navy had remarked that two aircraft carriers have been operating together in the South China Sea disputed waters. The destroyer John S McCain passed through the Taiwan Strait in the first week of February and conducted freedom of navigation operations in the disputed Paracel islands. The new Secretary of State had made a call to his counterparts in Vietnam and the Philippines, and assured that the US was not retreating from its stance on South China Sea and completely dispelling the excessive Chinese claims of maritime rights. He has assured that the US was committed to enforcing a rules-based order in the contested waters. The statement which was released subsequently stated that Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised that the US stands with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC pressure. The US approach is reassuring and critical during these trying times in South China Sea.
Myanmar: Exploiting lessons learnt in the Middle East
Demonstrating for the third week their determination to force the country’s military to return to its barracks, protesters in Myanmar appear to be learning lessons from a decade of protest in the Middle East and North Africa.
By the same token, Myanmar’s protesters, in stark contrast to public silence about the military’s brutal repression of the Rohingya minority in recent years, seem to want to forge a national identity that supersedes past emphasis on ethnicity and/or religion.
In doing so, they, like their counterparts in Lebanon and Iraq, reject sectarian policies that allowed elites to divide and rule and distract attention from economic and social grievances held by all segments of the population.
As they resist the military’s February 1 coup that nullified a democratic election won in November in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) because of alleged electoral fraud, protesters confront many of the same obstacles that demonstrators in Thailand, Turkey, Sudan, and Algeria face.
The ability to address desperately needed reforms with a buy-in from the military will shape a return to democracy and the sustainability of the transition. Taking military concerns into account reforms will have to include civilian control of the military, defining the military’s mission in national defence rather than ideological terms, and regulating the armed forces’ vast economic interests.
The Middle East and North Africa provide cautionary tales like Egypt that eight years after a coup has become a brutal dictatorship and Libya, Syria and Yemen that are wracked by war, as well as potential models, that would serve Myanmar’s democratization well.
Tunisia, the one Arab country to have pushed political transition relatively successful, was able to do so because Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian autocrat who was overthrown in 2011, had ensured that the military had no vested interest in the country’s political system.
Mr. Ben Ali decimated the military leadership, severely cut the budget of the armed forces early on in his 24-year rule and sidelined the military, relying instead on security forces and law enforcement. As a result, the military effectively stood aside when protesters staged mass anti-government demonstrations.
The positioning of Tunisia’s armed forces may not offer Myanmar immediate options, but it highlights the need for a military that understands itself as a national institution rather than a party with vested political and economic interests.
Of more immediate importance to Myanmar is the fact that Mr. Ben Ali as well as the leaders of Egypt, Libya and Yemen were toppled by an informal alliance between civil society and either factions of the military or the armed forces as a whole. They shared a short-term interest in removing the incumbent from power.
The same is true for Southeast Asia’s people power revolts in the Philippines and Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s. In Myanmar, it was the military that opted for a degree of political liberalization following decades of intermittent mass protest.
It took Tunisian civil society’s engagement with the security forces as well as other segments of society and the existing power structure to nurture the democratization process. By contrast, the process was derailed in much of the Middle East by a post-revolt breakdown of the alliance, often aggravated and/or manipulated by external forces.
The Tunisian approach enabled all parties to manage the inevitable divergence of interests once Mr. Ben Ali had been toppled, juxtaposing civil society’s quest for wholesale political and economic reform with the security forces’ insistence on the preservation of their economic and political interests and rescue of as much of the ancien regime as possible.
In Tunisia, like in other post-revolt countries, the divergence kicked in the moment the incumbent was removed. The Middle East and Southeast Asia’s experience demonstrates that the pitfalls are embedded in the compromises made to establish a transitionary government.
Inevitably, the military and/or security forces either constitute the transition government or are a powerful part of it. Their track record is one of taking liberties in protecting their interests.
Like in Myanmar this month, the military crosses red lines when the transition endangers those prerogatives. Learning how to counter the pitfalls of perilous but inevitable cooperation with at least segments of the military and/or security forces is a work in progress.
Turkey provides a different set of lessons. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s turn towards repression and authoritarianism in the wake of a failed military coup in 2016 suggests that civilian control does not offer a magic wand even if the takeover was foiled by protesters who set aside their social, ideological, and political differences.
If this is a cautionary tale, Turkey also offers solutions to at least one of the issues: the military’s economic interests. Turkey’s military, even before the imposition of civilian control, put its economic house in order by creating a conglomerate, one of the country’s largest, that is owned by the military pension fund and subject to regulation, civic and commercial law, and markets like any other privately held institution.
As civil obedience in Myanmar persists, protesters have certain advantages.
Rather than being on their own, the protesters benefit from being at the forefront of a wave of defiance and dissent that for the past decade and no doubt the next is fueled by a breakdown in confidence in political systems and leadership.
With the pandemic, the widespread mismanagement of public health responses, the global economic downturn and dislocation, and technological change, the coming decade promises to be perhaps even more turbulent.
In addition, Myanmar protesters’ may be beneficiaries of the electoral defeat of US President Donald Trump and the rise of Joe Biden, who has pledged to make human rights a central plank of his foreign policy.
Granted, US adherence in its foreign policy to its human rights values has at the best of times been checkered.
Nonetheless, Mr. Biden’s approach, even if imperfectly applied, erases the permissive environment that autocrats enjoyed during the Trump years.
There is, moreover, a reason to believe that Mr. Biden will be truer to his pledge because it is key to US efforts to repair the credibility and reputational damage suffered by the United States because of Mr. Trump’s America First policy; disdain for multilateralism, international institutions, and international law; empathy with autocrats; and disregard for human rights.
Playing into Mr. Biden’s emphasis on human rights is the fact that the protests, like in Lebanon and Iraq, appear to have broken down ethnic and religious fault lines.
Yangon’s usually hidden Rohingya community has openly joined the protests four years after detained democratically elected Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi stood by and later defended the military’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, more than 700,00 of which fled to Bangladesh.
Burmese who in recent years used Twitter to attack and threaten Rohingya activists living in exile have apologized since the February coup, recognizing that military rule poses a threat to all.
Political transition, like reconciliation, is a long-drawn-out process that can take up to half a century to play out. It is a process of two steps forward and steps backwards as Myanmar is discovering now.
The Myanmar military understands that tacit Russian and Chinese support may not be as much of a lifesaver as it was in the past. That may explain the military’s reluctance to crush the protests even if the likelihood of an imminent crackdown is high.
If the experience of Egypt is anything to go by, the military can brutally suppress and keep a lid on unrest for a period of time. It may preserve the military’s interests for a while, but it cannot provide sustainable economic solutions or ensure stability.
In contrast to Egypt, protesters in Myanmar have the advantage that they are demanding recognition of a current election outcome that could put a new government in a position to redefine the role of the military and regulate its economic interests.
Based on the experience of Egypt, one core bone that the government would likely have to throw the military is immunity against prosecution for past crimes. That may be a bitter pill to swallow and violate principles of truth and accountability as an important pillar of transition.
As Egypt demonstrates, it offers no guarantee of keeping the military in its barracks. But it may be the carrot that helps entice the military to make the concessions needed for a democratic transition.
For now, Myanmar cries out for non-partisan independents capable of helping the military and the protesters to back away from a zero-sum game that seems destined to result in bloodshed.
That is likely to prove a gargantuan task as Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi spearheads efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to mediate a way back from the brink.
In the words of former International Crisis Group Myanmar analyst Morten B. Pedersen “when a military obsessed with order and stability…confronts an essentially leaderless popular movement driven by youthful anger and shattered hopes, compromise is perhaps the hardest thing of all.”
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