The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Getting Serious about Democracy
By ANWAR IBRAHIM Friday, May 12, 2006

Malaysia’s former deputy PM takes Asean to task for coddling Burma, and advocates greater strides towards democracy there and throughout the region

 

Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim has returned to the international limelight, following his release from prison in September 2004 after serving six years. Once tipped to succeed former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar was convicted of corruption and sentenced to prison in 1999. The following year, the government added the charge of sexual misconduct in a move that was widely seen as politically motivated. An appeals court ultimately overturned the charge. Anwar always maintained his innocence on all counts. Since his release, he has been a vocal critic of Asean’s policy of “constructive engagement” with the Burmese military regime and a strong advocate for dialogue between the regime and Burma’s democratic opposition, particularly National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Still popular in Malaysia, Anwar also hopes to stage a political comeback in the 2009 elections. He spoke to The Irrawaddy about his concerns on Burma, Asean’s long-term regional goals, and his future political ambitions.

 

Question: You recently wrote an opinion piece in which you said: “The true cultivation of democracy requires more than simply the introduction of elections. It also requires the establishment of a democratic process and a leveling of the political playing field.” With this in mind, how do you, as a former political prisoner, assess the democratic process in Malaysia?

 

Answer: There are serious issues to contend with in Malaysia. Though we are considered to be a moderate nation on the path to development, the basic components of democracy in Malaysia are dysfunctional. There is no free media, the judiciary is compromised, corruption is rampant, the institutions of civil society are weak and the public remains ill-informed about the reality of the situation.  A country capable of sending people to prison without trial is in need of serious democratic reform.

 

Q: Are you preparing to contest the 2009 election despite uncertainty over whether you will be barred from running?

 

A: Yes. I will not bow to the machinations of authoritarian leaders masquerading as democrats and abusing the judicial process. I anticipate the ruling party will conjure some excuse to hold elections early in an attempt to preclude my participation, but my commitment to the reform agenda remains as strong as ever in spite of the obstacles placed in my path.

 

Q: If you are barred from running, what alternative roles do you see yourself taking in Malaysia’s political future?

 

A: From the moment I was sacked, I have been supporting the opposition movement and campaigning for democracy and freedom.  Since my release from prison, I have never been more committed to the cause of freedom and will continue to fight for justice with all my strength.

 

Q: Who are your supporters?

 

A: My supporters are a broad-based constituency and other indigenous people among Malays, Chinese, and Indians that are urging reform.  With rising unemployment and costs of living, Malaysian people are surprised that they have been left behind as compared to our sister nations, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand.  Many people in Malaysia are becoming disaffected with the current state of politics and desire a new vision for the future.

 

Q: How do you see the role and rise of political Islam in Malaysia?

 

A: In spite of the feverish rhetoric coming from the West about the dangers of political Islam, we must recognize that Islamic parties in Southeast Asia have always been a moderate force and have embodied a spirit of inclusiveness and openness. Because we are living in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, political parties have had to ensure flexibility and accommodation towards diverse groups to maintain credibility.  I, therefore, believe that the Islamic party will remain a part of the democratic process and share the political stage with other groups.  What remains critical for all parties to accept is the constitutional guarantees that include freedom of conscience, expression, free media, and an independent judiciary.

 

Q: Do you think Malaysia’s government was right to shut the Borneo Post after it published the Danish cartoons? Was there an ulterior political motive at work?

 

A: The insensitivity and callousness of the cartoons is self-evident, but we must affirm our commitment to the principles of democracy.  Freedom carries a heavy burden and responsibility.  Muslims have the right to protest and condemn the cartoons, but they cannot then violate basic principles of the religion by destroying property, harming innocent life, and calling for violence and harm to an entire nation. Muslim governments must resist the urge to compromise the freedom of the press and instead establish clear guidelines on how to deal with sensitive issues in a prescribed and legally binding manner. Otherwise the precedent of closing down newspapers over the publication of sensitive issues can lead to tyranny by the ruling authority.

 

Q: What is your opinion on people power uprisings in the Philippines and Thailand?

 

A: My sense is that the grassroots uprisings in the Philippines and Thailand represent economic frustrations.  Many of these people feel they have few opportunities for economic advancement and are frustrated by the lack of reforms in the system.  The government needs to address these issues as they affect all segments of society.

 

Q: Do you see any negative impact on Southeast Asia from the political drama in Thailand?

 

A: The situation in Thailand reaffirms the importance of the democratic process and the need for vigorous debate in the political arena.  The key point to understand is that we need to continue working on reforms that benefit people.  That was the impetus for protests in Thailand, coming from opposition groups and disaffected populations.

 

Q: What do you think Asean can do to bring about reform in Burma?

 

A: Asean can not turn a blind eye to egregious abuses of human rights by member states in the name of non-interference.  In order for Asean to enhance its relevance and prestige, it must address key issues in the region, ranging from economics and trade to abuses associated with migrant labor and human trafficking. Only by asserting its mandate to be a regional body with political and economic leverage can Asean put meaningful pressure on the ruling junta in Burma.

 

Q: How do you interpret Asean’s constructive engagement policy with Burma? Is it a total failure?

 

A: I am not convinced that Asean’s constructive engagement policy has helped balance power between the junta and opposition groups in Burma.  While I think that doing business can open avenues for dialogue, in this case we see there are business transactions taking place without any reciprocal moderation or reform from the Burmese government. Constructive engagement is meaningless without diplomacy and pressure on Rangoon to address issues, such as the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi.

 

Q: What do you think about the approach of Asean, Thailand and Mahathir [Mohamad, former Malaysian prime minister] to Burma? What else can be done?

 

A: I believe that Asean can play a larger role in Burma.  Asean is well placed to act as a mediator between competing regional interests.  Asean has made some small strides in addressing Burma, making a statement last December calling on the military junta to release political detainees and to get serious about introducing democracy.  In the face of such intransigence, however, Burma should not be coddled and coaxed into reform as those who would advance the Asian values thesis, which has been thoroughly and convincingly debunked by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.

 

Q: Is Burma damaging Asean and its relations with other countries?

 

A: Burma is Asean’s greatest embarrassment and failure. The lack of dialogue and continued human rights abuses and lack of freedom continue to reflect negatively on Asean’s role as a relevant regional decision-making body. Asean must continue to engender regional cooperation to put greater pressure on Burma for reform.

 

Q: Are US sanctions and diplomatic tough talk right? Should Asean take their lead from this?

 

A: Asean must take a leadership role in assisting the conflict [resolution] in Burma. While the role of the US and other international actors is critical, Asean can demonstrate its agenda for addressing economic, social and governance issues through sustained effort on Burma.

 

Q: Do you think China and India are making matters worse by their growing ties and expanding business dealings with Rangoon?

 

A: China and India can play an influential role in Burma.  They can choose to engage the Burmese regime through their business and investment interests.  At the same time, they should address the human rights abuses in their dealings with the government. If not, then I think it will be more difficult for them in the long run and more harmful, overall, for the region.  Ultimately as leading members of the Asian community, they will be judged for their commitment to security, development and justice in the region.

 

Q: Do you think the UN Security Council’s consideration of Burma will do any good in light of the failure of other UN initiatives, including Razali’s [Razali Ismail, former UN special envoy to Burma] mission?

 

A: It is critical that the UN and the Security Council continue to monitor the situation in Burma.  Razali’s mission failed in part due to the inaction of Asean and also his lack of credibility stemming from personal business interests that he has within Burma.

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