Malaysian malaise means western dilemma – ISN

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Four decades of ethnic harmony is on the wane with recent protests and looming elections undermining domestic stability in Malaysia, the US’ 10th largest trading partner and a target for EU free trade links.

By Simon Roughneen

Two recent protests in Kuala Lumpur prompted a stern government riposte, with rights groups decrying the deployment of the Internal Security Act (ISA), which on Thursday saw five Hindu lawyers detained without prospect of trial.

On 25 November, the men fronted a 30,000-strong demonstration by Indian Malays – mainly descendants of Tamil laborers brought to British Malaya during imperial rule. Seeking reparations from the British Crown, the protesters simultaneously demonstrated against pro-Malay and anti-Indian discrimination in the government.

This followed a larger rally on 10 November led by BERSIH – an opposition party/civil society platform seeking clean elections due to be held by 2009 but possibly early next year.

Police used tear gas and baton charges to disperse the mostly Malay crowds, after which Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the government would not tolerate street demonstrations, echoing remarks made at Malaysia’s 50th birthday celebrations held in August: “We must take care of our unity and we must be ready to destroy any threat which may affect our unity.”

Would-be opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is barred from political participation until April 2008, after securing early release from prison on corruption and sodomy charges, seen by many as politically motivated.

Ibrahim’s unwieldy opposition coalition includes dissident Malays, hardline Malay Islamists and a secular Chinese party. For now, most ethnic Malays will likely back the Badawi’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has ruled Malaysia since the state was founded.

The Internal Security Act was introduced by the British during the death throes of colonial rule, and has been used from time to time in Malaysia’s often muted but usually peaceful democracy.

Recently, though, the stakes have been raised as dissent in this poly-religious and multiethnic state has taken on a decisively sectarian and confrontational aspect. Mainly Christian Chinese-Malaysians were angered by a Malaysian court ruling that a Malay woman could not convert from Islam to Catholicism, despite the country’s secular constitution.

In July, European Commission Delegate Thierry Rommel described the country’s pro-Malay affirmative action system – known as the New Economic Policy (NEP) – as discriminatory, saying it works against Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian minorities in education, housing allocation and business start-up.

Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar took Rommel to task for “interfering in the internal affairs and politics of a country.”

The NEP was set up to help the mostly Muslim ethnic Malays reach the education and income levels of Chinese and Indians. However, non-Malays feel that the measure has attained its objectives and now constitutes unfair discrimination.

Malaysia has been regarded as the type of moderate, pro-investment, pro-western majority Muslim country with which the US needs to do business. Malaysian cooperation is needed to facilitate joint US-Filipino counter-terrorism operations in the southern Philippines and is home to the Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counterterrorism, which has trained over 1,000 police and military personnel from various countries.

Moreover, more than 50 percent of the world’s traded oil passes through the Straits of Malacca – including 70 percent of China’s imports. The US wants to heighten naval activity in the narrow waterway, ostensibly to protect against potential seaborne terror attacks.

But Chinese demand for Malaysian natural resources leaves Putrajaya with ample options should it continue to ignore western requests that political dissent be allowed. Malaysia can maintain its balancing act, warily keeping tabs on the would-be regional hegemon in Beijing, while keeping the China card handy should the West lean too hard.

The EU has already agreed in principle to pursue free trade talks with the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) bloc, despite the crackdowns on peaceful protestors in Malaysia and Burma, two ASEAN member-states.

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