Foreign and Defense Policy, Asia

Soft power is not the same as doing nothing: Democracy gets short shrift from Obama in Malaysia

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Not mentioned in this fawning account in today’s Washington Post of Obama’s “comfort and personal connections” in Southeast Asia, is the signal failure of his visit to Malaysia, where he refused to meet with the leader of the Malaysian democratic opposition.

President Obama, like all American presidents in recent history, meets routinely with opposition leaders in democratic countries like the UK and Germany and even in some not so democratic ones, such as Burma, where he met with Aung San Suu Kyi, a very important meeting given the key role that she plays in determining that country’s future.

Yet the president, using the thin excuse of scheduling difficulties, refused to meet with Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Malaysian opposition coalition which managed, despite blatant fraud and vote rigging in last year’s election, to gain 52% of the popular vote (a margin which was reduced by gerrymandering to only 40% of the seats in parliament). That alone would seem to warrant a meeting by the President of the United States with the leader of the opposition.

Moreover, in this case there is the additional consideration that Mr. Anwar is now being persecuted by the government, as he has been for many years, on trumped-up charges of sodomy.

After Anwar was initially acquitted on the most recent charges, the government appealed the acquittal, as it can do in Malaysia. It made an unusual ad hoc appointment of a member of the ruling UMNO party, a Mr. Shafee Abdullah, who has litigated numerous high-profile cases for UMNO, as a lead prosecutor to appeal the acquittal. In addition to that obvious conflict of interest, Mr. Shafee was present at a meeting in 2008 between the Anwar’s accuser and Prime Minister Najib, just a few days before the original charges were brought, a meeting which the government first denied and then later admitted.

Not surprisingly, with this appeal the government succeeded in overturning the acquittal. The resulting conviction, a few months ago, came just in time to prevent Anwar from running for the position of Chief Minister of Malaysia’s most important state. If that conviction is upheld after Anwar’s current appeal, he faces the prospect of many years in jail.

A meeting by Obama with the leader of the Malaysian opposition would have sent a powerful message of US support for the majority of Malaysians – and probably a much larger majority of young Malaysians – who long for peaceful, democratic change in their country, one of the Muslim-majority countries that is perhaps most ready for a transition to real democracy.

Moreover, with such a meeting, President Obama could have supported with his personal prestige the pieties that he uttered, at his joint press conference with Prime Minister Najib, about the need for countries that want “to be successful in the 21st century” to “respect rule of law. . . freedom of speech…the right of opposition to oppose even when it drives you crazy, and freedom of assembly.”

Instead, the President called Prime Minister Najib a “reformer” and stood by silently while Najib claimed falsely that the action against Anwar is not an action by the government but rather “an action taken by an individual . . . and under the eyes of the law, even if you’re a small man or a big man, you have equal justice.” The absurdity of this last claim is evident in the fact that one of the very few people ever to be tried under Malaysia’s sodomy law – in the 77 years since the British colonial rulers introduced it – is the popular leader of the opposition.

Instead, President Obama delegated the meeting with Mr. Anwar to National Security Advisor Susan Rice. According to the official White House report of that private meeting, Rice told Anwar “that the United States has followed his case closely, and that the decision to prosecute him and the trial have raised a number of concerns regarding the rule of law and the independence of the courts.”

Good words, but they would have been much more valuable if they had been uttered in public and by the president himself. And even more powerful would have been the symbolism and substance of a presidential meeting. Instead, by refusing to meet with him, the president appears to be sending a green light to the Malaysian government, whether he means to or not, that it can continue its legal persecution of the opposition leadership without meeting any serious American objection.

One would like to hope that the warm public atmosphere is actually a way to obtain real results in private. President Reagan did that, with conspicuous success, in the case of the Pentecostalist asylum-seekers in Russia and in the case of opposition leader Kim Dae Jung in South Korea.

Perhaps such hope is not vain. Anwar himself is said to be very pleased with the statement issued by the White House after his meeting with Susan Rice and pleased that he had a chance for the first time to make his case directly to a senior White House official. Perhaps the refusal of the president to meet with Anwar was part of some private understanding with the Malaysian government that it would do the right thing. Or perhaps, having finally understood the gravity of the situation, the White House will pressure the Malaysians not to embarrass President Obama on the heels of his visit.

One can hope for that outcome. But if, instead, the railroad of Malaysian “justice” proceeds on track to its unhappy destination, that will be bad not only for Mr. Anwar personally, but also for Malaysian democracy and for America’s reputation in Malaysia, particularly with the future generation of young Malaysians.

If that happens, it will be one more example, and a particularly tragic one, of this American president failing to use the “soft power” of his unusual international popularity to produce important concrete results for human rights and democracy.

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2 thoughts on “Soft power is not the same as doing nothing: Democracy gets short shrift from Obama in Malaysia

  1. I wish someone in the USA would try to get Thailand to honor democratic processes….Thaksin is Thaksin, but voters have put him or his party into power many times in last 8 years, and the royalists-elites keep subverting the process.

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