April 27, 2014
In Malaysia Visit, Obama Strikes a Positive Tone
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The last time a top American official visited this Southeast Asian nation was in 1998, when Vice President Al Gore rebuked its leaders for suppressing freedom and embraced “reformasi,” the rallying cry of a student-led protest movement.
On Sunday, President Obama visited Malaysia to underscore how much has changed in the last 16 years — not least in the country’s attitude toward the United States, which has evolved from deep suspicion, verging on contempt, to a cautious desire for cooperation.
Citing negotiations for a trans-Pacific trade accord, a formal agreement to cooperate in halting the spread of nuclear parts, and the desperate search for the missing Malaysian jetliner, Mr. Obama said, “we’re working more closely together than ever before.”
White House officials liken Malaysia to a “swing state” among Southeast Asian nations, falling somewhere between the free-wheeling democracy of the Philippines and the one-party authoritarianism of Laos. Encouraging Malaysia’s evolution into a more pluralistic society, officials said, could make it a model for the rest of the region.
In some ways, though, Malaysia remains the same work in progress it was in 1998, blessed with an industrious, multiethnic population but an often corrupt political system, ruled by an entrenched Malay elite that does not hesitate to deal with its detractors through what the opposition considers trumped-up charges.
Speaking at a news conference with Prime Minister Najib Razak, Mr. Obama treaded politely into these issues. He said he pressed Mr. Najib during their meeting about Malaysia’s civil liberties and human rights record, which has come under fresh scrutiny in recent weeks because of the legal travails of an opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.
“The Prime Minister is the first to acknowledge that Malaysia has still got some work to do on these issues, just like the United States, by the way, has some work to do,” Mr. Obama said.
“Prime Minister Najib came in as a reformer, and one who is committed to it, and I am going to continue to encourage him as a friend and as a partner to make sure we’re making progress on that front,” he said, as the Malaysian leader looked on gravely.
But Mr. Obama did not meet Mr. Anwar, a former Deputy Prime Minister whose January 2012 acquittal on sodomy charges was thrown out by an appeals court last month, putting his political comeback in jeopardy. Mr. Anwar’s first trial in 1999, which ended in a conviction and six years in jail, was widely condemned as politically motivated.
Mr. Obama did not offer a reason but said his decision was “not indicative of a lack of concern, given the fact that there are a lot of people I don’t meet with, and opposition leaders I don’t meet with, but that doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about them.”
As a consolation prize, Mr. Anwar will get a meeting with the national security adviser, Dr. Susan E. Rice, on Monday. Some human rights activists said that was not enough.
“Anwar, to Malaysia, is almost as important a figure as Aung San Suu Kyi is in Burma,” said Andrew Khoo, a human rights lawyer here, referring to the country also known as Myanmar. “If President Obama took the time to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, it is a little odd that he wouldn’t meet with Anwar.”
Later, he presided over a town-hall-style meeting with young people from around Southeast Asia, where he shared stories about his own political development and offered advice on how countries emerging from repression, like Myanmar, should deal with ethnic and religious strife.
As societies open up, Mr. Obama said, these conflicts often bubble to the surface. He cited both the legacy of ethnic strife in Malaysia, with its Muslim majority and Chinese and Indian minorities, and Myanmar, where the Muslim Rohingya minority faces persecution.
“Malaysia won’t succeed if non-Muslims don’t have opportunity,” he said, roaming the stage at the University of Malaya in a relaxed style that recalled some of his early campaign events. “Myanmar won’t succeed if the Muslim population is repressed.”
For all its flaws, administration officials said Malaysia could still develop into a model Muslim-majority country with a diverse population. Mr. Najib is a far less authoritarian figure than Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister who dominated Malaysian politics for a quarter-century and who often railed against the United States.
“President Obama and I are both equally concerned about civil liberties as a principle,” Mr. Najib said at the news conference, citing legal reforms Mr. Najib initiated when he came into office in 2009.
Human rights activists credit Mr. Najib with reformist instincts early in his tenure. More recently, though, they say he has been pulled back from a path of moderation by reactionary elements in his party, which represents the country’s Malay majority.
Mr. Obama, however, has clearly developed a level of trust with him. After their meeting, Mr. Obama went out of his way to express sympathy for the government’s so far fruitless search for the Malaysian plane, which has exposed Mr. Najib to criticism.
“Obviously, we don’t have all the details of what happened,” Mr. Obama said. “But if, in fact, the plane went down in the ocean in this part of the world, that is a big place.”