Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Malaysia has lashed out at Canada for imposing new travel restrictions on its citizens, just days after it emerged that the U.S. also considers the Southeast Asian country a potential terrorist risk.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad Sunday dismissed the reason given by Canada for requiring Malaysians to apply for "temporary resident visas" - concerns that Malaysian passports and the passport issuing system could easily be abused by people wanting to enter Canada illegally.
If that were true, he said, Ottawa would have began discriminating against Malaysia long ago.
Malaysians had considered the Canadians to be friendly, he said, "but apparently we don't know the Canadians very well."
Other ministers also called the decision unfair and said it could hurt diplomatic relations, while Malaysia's high commissioner (ambassador) to Canada, Dennis Ignatius, said earlier the move would add "to the general anti-Muslim hysteria that is out there."
Canada now also requires visas from citizens of Saudi Arabia, for the same stated reason about passport concerns. Most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals.
Malaysia and Canada are both members of the Commonwealth, a grouping of Britain and its former colonies. Ties have therefore historically been good, and Malaysia is Canada's top trading partner in the region.
Mahathir portrays predominantly Muslim Malaysia as a beacon of stability in Southeast Asia, and bristles at suggestions that the al-Qaeda terrorist network enjoys support there.
Recently his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi - who is expected to succeed the retiring Mahathir late next year - said U.S. immigration authorities had included Malaysia on a list of 15 states considered to pose a high risk.
Abdullah said he raised the issue with Vice President Cheney during a visit to Washington, and told him Malaysians did not like being branded as a terrorist state.
As of earlier this month, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service began requiring special registration of specific foreign visitors, who among other requirements are to be fingerprinted and photographed.
When first announced last August, the registration program targeted visitors from five of the countries on the State Department's list of seven terror sponsors - Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Libya (The other two are North Korea and Cuba).
It left room open for others, who could be selected "according to intelligence criteria reflecting patterns of terrorist organizations' activities."
An INS memo cited in wire reports last week said that male citizens of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan aged 16-45 would also require registration with effect from October 1. Egyptians may also face the procedure on arrival.
According to the memo, immigration officials are warned to pay attention to whether visitors from the specified countries have paid unexplained - or unconvincingly explained - visits to any of 15 countries, one of which is Malaysia.
The others are Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Somalia, Pakistan, North Korea and Cuba.
Mahathir and his ministers have been touchy about reports on al-Qaeda-linked activity in Malaysia.
Last February the government threatened to sue Newsweek after it and other U.S. publications reported on the Sufaat affair. Mahathir's office complained that the reporting portrayed Malaysia as a launch pad for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Malaysia's record in cooperating with the U.S. in the campaign against terrorism has been mixed, however.
Mahathir condemned the Sept. 11 attacks but opposed the military operation against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Malaysian police arrested more than 60 suspected militants over the past year, but domestic critics and analysts have said the arrests - which actually began before Sept. 11 - were in part a clampdown on Mahathir's political opponents.
One of those detained is Yazid Sufaat, a former army captain accused of hosting two of the Sept. 11 hijackers in Kuala Lumpur in 2000, and ties to the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui.
But although the government will allow U.S. investigators to question Sufaat, it has declined to extradite him.
Malaysian police on Friday announced the arrest of another suspect, Wan Min Wan Mat, whom they said was linked to Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a regional terrorist network believed to be closely associated to al-Qaeda.
Other JI suspects are in custody in Singapore and the Philippines.
Washington has proposed the establishment of a regional counter-terrorism center to be based in Kuala Lumpur. The Malaysian government is still considering the idea.
The outspoken prime minister returned from a trip to Europe at the weekend expressing a pessimistic outlook on the state of democracy and "fair play."
Mahathir pointed to the case of Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, besieged by the Israelis in his Ramallah office for 10 days.
"The impression I get is that there is no justice in the world today," he said.
"If someone is disliked, then anything can be done to him even though it is unfair. In the case of Arafat, it looks like he is hated by certain quarters. As such, he will not get fair treatment because justice does not exist anymore in this world."
Mahathir wrote to President Bush and the leaders of France and Germany in recent days complaining about Arafat's predicament.
Under pressure from Washington, Israel withdrew its tanks and forces from the Ramallah compound on Sunday. The Israeli government said 18 people among the 200 holed up with the PA leader were directly tied to terrorist attacks.