SHAH ALAM — The two defendants appeared in court with scarves wrapped around their heads, partially obscuring their faces. One of the young women spoke animatedly, hands awhirl as she bantered with her lawyers during a recess. Her relaxed demeanor belied the charges against them. Since Oct. 2, Siti Aisyah, a 26-year-old Indonesian, and Doan Thi Huong, a 29-year-old Vietnamese, have been on trial in a Malaysian courtroom for what prosecutors consider a brazen assassination. The court has seen the closed-circuit camera footage from Feb. 13 at the airport in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur — aired on TV worldwide — that shows the two women sidling up to a portly, middle-aged man and appearing to rub their hands in his face. The man, who turned out to be 46-year-old Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, died shortly afterward from what an autopsy concluded was exposure to the lethal nerve agent VX.
KUALA LUMPUR — For fifth time in less than a decade, thousands of yellow-clad supporters of an electoral reform movement called Bersih (Malay for ‘clean’) jammed streets in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday in their latest demonstration seeking change. But for the last year and a half, the group, which is backed by Malaysia’s opposition parties, have been seeking change at the top – the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak over lurid corruption allegations involving a state development fund called 1MDB. Najib is accused of trousering around $US700 billion allegedly siphoned off from 1MDB, public money that was supposed to help Malaysia meet its target of becoming a developed country by 2020 but which allegedly ended up in the prime minister’s personal bank accounts. Najib claimed the money was a Saudi Arabian donation, most of which was repaid. As well as being cleared of wrong-doing by the attorney-general, the prime minister has parried all comers so far, including his own deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who was fired after criticizing the boss over the allegations of financial impropriety.
KUALA LUMPUR – The rally was a show of strength by Najib’s opponents but looked unlikely to shake his hold on power, which has weakened amid allegations that around $700 million in public money was deposited into bank accounts in his name. The scandal over a state development fund Najib set up in 2009 has drawn the attention of law enforcement agencies from around the world. The Justice Department alleged in July that “an international conspiracy” helped siphon $3.5 billion from the fund, known as 1MDB. Some of the money is alleged to have been used to set up a Hollywood production company led by Najib’s stepson that made, among other films, “The Wolf of Wall Street” – a story of financial corruption. Najib, who was in Peru on an official visit, has said he never took money “for personal gain” and called the deposits a donation from Saudi Arabia that he mostly repaid. The corruption scandal has gripped a country that has otherwise been a bulwark of political stability in Southeast Asia, long embraced by the West for its moderate brand of Islam. Stung by the criticism, Najib has recently played up Malaysia’s growing ties with China and castigated Western powers for interfering in former colonies. In recent months, as calls for his resignation have grown louder, several leading opposition politicians have been charged or jailed on a variety of offenses including sedition and breaches of communications laws. Among those facing prison was Rafizi Ramli, an opposition parliamentarian who joined the demonstration, saying Najib “will try to cling to power because [otherwise] he will go to jail.”
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Like its bigger neighbor Indonesia, Malaysia has mostly had the reputation of a Muslim-majority country that does not oppress its religious minorities. Its live-and-let-live disposition is far removed from the rigors faced by Christians in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where churches cannot be built nor Mass said; or Pakistan, where Christians are expected to adhere to a strict anti-blasphemy law that critics say favors Islam over other faiths; or Iraq and Syria, where hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled war and ensuing attacks by Islamist militias. At St. John’s Cathedral and other churches in Kuala Lumpur, a modern and lively city of around 2 million people, worshippers gather every Sunday for Masses in English and in Tamil, the main language of Malaysia’s 7% minority descended from South-Asian settlers who migrated during British colonial rule, as well as in Tagalog, the language of many of the tens of thousands of Filipino migrant workers living in wealthier-neighbor Malaysia. But despite U.S. President Barack Obama’s praise for Malaysia in late 2015, during an official visit to the country, describing it as “a majority-Muslim country that represents tolerance and peace,” there are signs of a growing Islamization in politics in this country of 30 million people, where around 60% of the population is Muslim. Non-Muslims have been barred from using the Arabic term “Allah” to denote God, with authorities confiscating Bibles containing the proscribed word, after the local Catholic Church lost a legal challenge to allow non-Muslims to keep using the word, which was a long-established linguistic practice.
SINGAPORE — Every day by sundown during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the cooks and serving staff at the Singapore Islamic Restaurant are swamped. On a recent evening, there was barely a seat to be found as hungry diners settled in for iftar, the post-fast evening supper, with the aroma of the house special, biryani — a mixed rice dish — wafting through the crowded restaurant and onto the muggy street outside. “This is the busiest time for us,” said owner Kalil, leaning back against a railing outside the restaurant, which sits almost opposite the Sultan Mosque and around the corner from Arab Street, an area known as Kampong Glam that is a hub for Islamic life in the city-state. For Muslims, almost a quarter of the world’s population, Ramadan means a month each year of waking before dawn to eat suhour, the pre-fast meal, and working, hungry, through the day until nightfall, when eating is allowed once again. As the setting sun beats a tawny glow off the Sultan Mosque’s golden minaret, people queue at stalls for kebabs, rice, and fruit such as dates, the latter a popular snack to break the daylong fast.
KUALA LUMPUR — Relatives of passengers who were onboard a Malaysia Airlines jet that disappeared more than two years ago have pleaded with the Australian, Chinese and Malaysian governments to keep looking for the missing aircraft. The relatives’ concerns were raised after the head of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which was leading the underwater search for MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, said there was no indication that the search would be continued beyond August after the designated 120,000 sq. km of ocean had been combed through. “We are gravely concerned about the impending completion of the search in the current targeted area,” the Voice370 group told Agence France-Presse. Voice370 is made up of the families of the 239 people onboard on the plane, which was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 2014 when it disappeared. Voice370 aims “to seek the truth about the incident and find our loved ones onboard MH370,” according to the group’s Facebook page. ATSB Chief Executive Martin Dolan said on May 20 that there was a “diminishing level of confidence we will find the aircraft,” but added that “the remaining 13,000 sq. km is still a lot of territory and it’s still entirely possible the aircraft is there.”
KUALA LUMPUR — It was a brief, sudden goodbye. With its website blocked by the government since late February, hard-hitting news service The Malaysian Insider announced on March 14 that it would cease to publish on the same day. “The Edge Media Group has decided to shut down The Malaysian Insider from midnight today, for commercial reasons,” wrote the editor, Jahabar Sadiq, in a notice posted on the publication’s website, which had been blocked because of its reports on corruption allegations against Prime Minister Najib Razak. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission said The Malaysian Insider’s reporting broke the law as it amounted to “improper use of network facilities or network service.” Najib has fended off calls for his resignation over hundreds of millions of dollars credited to his personal bank accounts in 2013, saying the money was donated by the Saudi royal family. He has also brushed off recent allegations that the total sum in his accounts amounted to $1 billion and came from troubled state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, at which Najib is the chair of the advisory board.
YANGON — Hanging by Ma Thandar’s living-room window is a photograph of her late husband Par Gyi, his image warmed by the mid-morning sun. His grisly death in October 2014 was a stark reminder that despite five years of quasi-civilian rule in Myanmar, the military remains, in many ways, above the law. Ma Thandar — who ran for and won a parliamentary seat in Myanmar’s Nov. 8 national elections — has vowed to press on with her campaign to find out what really happened to her husband. She is among a handful of women, frustrated by lack of official progress in their home countries, who are making their voices heard on issues across the Asian political spectrum. Par Gyi, a journalist, was killed in detention by soldiers while covering one of Myanmar’s long-running civil wars. It took the army three weeks to reveal the whereabouts of his body. Senior officers claimed he was working for an ethnic rebel militia and that he was shot while trying to escape. However, Par Gyi’s body — dug up from the shallow grave in which he was hastily buried — showed signs of beating and torture. “I want to get justice but the progress is slow,” she said.
KUALA LUMPUR — It must have been through gritted teeth, but Malaysia’s troubled Prime Minister Najib Razak affected a sanguine air when asked about his reaction to U.S. President Barack Obama’s comments on the recent crackdown on dissent during their meeting on Nov. 20. “Malaysia is committed to reforms,” Najib said.The Malaysian prime minster added that he is “taking into account some of the president’s views” on freedom of speech and the role of civil society in a democracy — a contribution Obama sees as significant given that while in Kuala Lumpur he also met with the organizer of a demonstration in August demanding Najib’s resignation. Since a narrow 2013 election win, Najib has overseen the charging of hundreds of journalists, activists, cartoonists and lawmakers with sedition, while opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been sent back to jail for allegedly sodomizing a male colleague — a criminal offence in Malaysia. “Najib has been in a touchy mode since the May 5, 2013 general elections. He does not seem to take criticism very well, and so I imagine that Obama meeting opposition people upset Najib,” said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania.