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A supine Australian government response to the Malaysian treatment of Anwar Ibrahim

March 8th, 2014

2014-03-08_anwarIt rather looks as if once again it will be left to independent Senator Nick Xenophon in Australia to dare to criticise the continuing prosecution of the prominent Malaysian opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim. A Malaysian court yesterday overturned Anwar’s acquittal by a lower court on a sodomy charges and sentenced him to five years’ jail, ruling he had anal intercourse with his male aide in 2008.

The Australian Government continues to avoid making any criticism of Malaysia but the United States has voiced concern over what it says are politically motivated charges brought against Anwar, urging Malaysia to ensure fairness and transparency. “The decision to prosecute Mr Anwar, and his trial, have raised a number of concerns regarding the rule of law and the independence of the court,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “In this high-profile case, it is critical for Malaysia to apply the rule of law fairly, transparently and apolitically in order to promote confidence in Malaysia’s democracy and judiciary.” As the ABC reports, Anwar’s case was loudly condemned as politically motivated, and when asked whether this was still the US stand, Ms Psaki replied “It is.”

Last year Senator Xenophon, who earlier was refused entry into Malaysia, was instrumental in having Anwar invited to speak at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas. He wrote then:

“Anwar Ibrahim is a beacon of hope for democracy not just in Malaysia but for the entire region. Despite over six years imprisonment in solitary confinement on false charges – eventually quashed – and being severely beaten in custody, Anwar remains an inspirational and optimistic icon for democratic change.

“Since being deported and banned from Malaysia earlier this year, it means I can no longer visit Anwar in his home country. It is great that he has been able to visit Adelaide to share his incredible experiences and insights with us all.”

When the Anwar visit actually took place, the Malaysian government warned it nationals studying in Australia not to attend his public gathering. Anwar used an article in The Australian to criticise the Australian government’s response to that instruction.

As a liberal democracy, the ability to be able to express views freely in a peaceful manner is a cornerstone of your society.

Imagine my surprise, then, when, after independent senator Nick Xenophon and I called on Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to condemn the threat and to protect students attending my talk, the response was so weak.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade merely responded with a statement, saying: “All students residing in Australia, including Malaysian students, enjoy all rights and liberties available under the Australian law, including the ability to attend a wide variety of legitimate events taking place in Australia. The Festival of Ideas in Adelaide is one such event.”

Contrast this with the US State Department telling the Malaysian embassy in Washington to back off when it made similar threats there.

My talk highlighted the tragic state of democracy in Malaysia, conveniently ignored by this and the previous Australian governments.

The grave flaws of Malaysia’s election system were highlighted last year by an independent, international fact-finding mission, of which Senator Xenophon was a member.

The mission flagged grave concerns about the integrity of the electoral roll, phantom voters, voter intimidation, a corruption-prone postal-voting system and, overall, the potential for massive electoral fraud.

There is also a severe gerrymander favouring the government. The Secretary General of the ruling party, for example, has only 7000 voters in his electorate. The deputy leader of the opposition has 100,000 voters in his electorate.

And major television stations and newspapers are owned by allies of the government with no airtime or space given for the opposition’s views, apart from outright vilification.

The international fact-finding mission concluded that these restrictions were draconian, because they prevented alternative views being heard.

Little wonder that the ruling coalition has never been out of power in the past 56 years.

The mission’s fears proved well founded at May’s general elections. Despite widespread voter fraud and irregularities, and the official result of almost 52% for the opposition and 47% for the government, the gerrymander still meant the ruling party holds 60% of the seats.

As for me, I am banned from entering any university campus in Malaysia. It seems my time as a professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC doesn’t qualify me to set foot on campuses in my own country!

I was overwhelmed by the response I received from the Australian public and Malaysian students in Adelaide.

Successive Australian governments have been rightly concerned when such anti-democratic processes prevailed in Myanmar. But their silence at this travesty in Malaysia is deeply saddening. And the response of Ms Bishop to threats made against Malaysian students on Australian soil truly shocks me. – theaustralian.com.au, October 23, 2013.

See an earlier note on Anwar Ibrahim’s continuing political ambitions – A real job for Anwar Ibrahim? 


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