SINGAPORE: A widely publicized video that purportedly shows the police in Malaysia conducting a strip-search of a female tourist from China has unexpectedly touched off a furor in both countries, sending Malaysian officials scrambling to soothe relations.
The incident has raised questions about whether the numbers of tourists from China are cloaking a wave of illegal immigrants, smugglers and prostitutes. Given Malaysia's eager efforts to defuse the issue, it also signals the extent to which China's growing economic clout is quickly turning it into an important diplomatic and political influence in Southeast Asia.
The video, recorded using a cellular phone's video camera, contains a clip of a naked ethnic Chinese woman being directed by someone who appears to be a Malaysian policewoman to squat repeatedly while holding her ears. Its circulation followed complaints by four tourists from China of similar treatment by the Malaysian police.
With Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao scheduled to arrive in Kuala Lumpur next week for the inaugural gathering of the East Asia summit, Malaysia's home affairs minister, Azmi Khalid, flew to Beijing this week to apologize officially for mistreatment of Chinese in Malaysia and try to salvage the country's reputation as a tourist destination.
Referring to other alleged incidents involving mainland Chinese in Malaysia, Azmi told reporters Tuesday in Beijing, "These are outside our control, actually, but we apologize, because we don't like to see these things happen."
After initially dismissing the strip-search in the video as an isolated incident, Chinese officials have become more insistent that the issue be resolved. The Foreign Ministry has called for severe punishment for those responsible.
"China will continue to urge Malaysia to take effective measures to, on the one hand, find out the truth and punish perpetrators and, on the other hand, ensure the dignity and personal safety of Chinese citizens in Malaysia, so as to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents," a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said in a regular news conference Nov. 29. The ministry did not respond to requests for comment on Azmi's apology.
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi of Malaysia has appointed a five-member panel headed by a former chief justice to investigate the video incident and to look into allegations that the police subject Chinese women to racial profiling. "By Monday we'll know everything," said Othman Talib, director of internal security and public order for the Royal Malaysia Police.
Othman denied, however, that the police single out Chinese women. "We don't do that. There's no such thing as profiling," he said by phone in Kuala Lumpur.
Whatever the incident may suggest about police procedures in Malaysia, it illustrates China's growing importance to the region's trade-dependent economies, particularly the importance of its tourists. Perhaps more than anything, Malaysia's response underscores the diplomatic stature China is gaining in the region thanks to its meteoric economic expansion.
"There's no question that China has increased its influence," said Sheng Lijun, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Nations. "So Malaysia is not only concerned with the reduction of tourists but also with its trade with China."
Malaysia is also trying to avoid letting a public-relations scrap upset its longer-term strategic plans with China, Sheng said. Malaysia is to host next week's regional summit, which is intended to be the most significant effort yet to forge greater political integration among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Japan, South Korea and China. Malaysia has been an outspoken proponent of increasing Asian unity to offset the U.S.-led strategic alliances that have prevailed in Asia for decades.
While the video clip has drawn comparisons by some to photographs published last year of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and the 1991 video of Rodney King being beaten by the Los Angeles police, the furor surrounding it is more reminiscent of the controversy created by photos that circulated across the Internet of ethnic Chinese women purportedly raped and murdered in the riots that swept Indonesia in 1998, enraging the global Chinese diaspora. Many of those photos proved to be hoaxes.
The Malaysian video has also sparked protests among the country's ethnic Chinese minority, who say the likelihood that the woman in the video may well have been a Malaysian citizen only attests to the discrimination they face.
But others say that the issue has only gained public attention because the woman depicted appeared to be from China. "At the end of the day all of this is being done because it might involve trade and friendship and tourism," said Aegile Fernandez, organizer at Tenaganita, a Malaysian rights group focused on labor conditions for women and migrants.
The police routinely subject most detainees to repeated squatting, she said, sometimes until they collapse. Police and prison officials around the world often force smuggling suspects to squat to induce ejection of contraband hidden in bodily cavities.
China is Malaysia's fourth-largest trading partner after the United States, Japan and the European Union; bilateral trade jumped 33 percent last year, to 71.4 billion ringgit, or $18.9 billion. China's tourists are also an important source of income for Malaysia: More than a half a million Chinese visited Malaysia last year, making the mainland the largest source of tourists outside Southeast Asia.
Not all the Chinese who visit Malaysia return home, however. Last month, Prime Minister Abdullah ordered an investigation into revelations that immigration officials were unable to account for as many as 50,000 Chinese tourists who came to Malaysia this year. In previous years, higher numbers were reported.
The authorities have said some of the missing tourists migrated to Europe after obtaining forged passports. Others are believed to be working illegally in Malaysia, blending in with the nation's ethnic Chinese minority. Many of the women have joined growing ranks of mainland Chinese prostitutes plying their trade in seafood restaurants, karaoke clubs and massage parlors around the country, the authorities said. Chinese nationals reportedly accounted for 40 percent of the women arrested on suspicion of prostitution in Malaysia this year, outnumbering women from neighboring Indonesia or Thailand.
That fewer Chinese are now disappearing into Malaysia than in previous years could reflect not better enforcement, but rather that fewer Chinese are visiting. Tourist arrivals from China fell 45 percent in the first nine months of this year amid reports of official harassment and unscrupulous tour operators.
Malaysia narrowly averted another diplomatic incident in July when more than 300 tourists from China took offense at drawings on display at Genting Highlands, a casino resort. Although the resort said the drawings were meant only to distinguish their Chinese guests from Muslims, who cannot eat pork, the Chinese staged a sit-in in the hotel lobby that took 40 police officers with dogs to clear.
A retired top judge will head an inquiry into a Malaysian police abuse scandal sparked by a video showing a naked Chinese woman forced to perform squats in police custody, the prime minister said Friday. Former Chief Justice Dzaiddin Abdullah, along with another lawyer and three senior government officials, have been instructed to submit a report on the scandal in 30 days, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told reporters.
"There is an uproar so we want to know what happened," Abdullah said, adding that the government will wait for the report before taking any action. He said he decided to appoint an external commission to allay suspicions of a cover-up.
All five panel members also belonged to a royal commission set up by Abdullah in 2003 to identify ways to improve the police force. The commission uncovered rampant graft and other abuses, and made more than 100 recommendations, including setting up an independent body to investigate complaints.
The new panel has been tasked with investigating standard operating procedures followed by the police when conducting body searches of detainees, following the public outcry caused by the video and subsequent police claims that the acts it displayed are normal procedure.
The video, secretly shot using a camera phone by an unidentified person, shows a naked Chinese woman being made to perform squats in the presence of a policewoman. The nude video has bolstered claims by human rights activists that police routinely mistreat detainees, and raised concerns that the Malay-dominated police unfairly target Chinese, whether they are Malaysians or visitors to the country.
Ethnic Chinese comprise about a quarter of Malaysia's 25 million people, while the majority are ethnic Malays. It was unclear whether the woman in the video was a Chinese national or a Malaysian ethnic Chinese, but China has formally protested and urged action over the alleged mistreatment. Malaysia has apologized to China. The Star daily reported Friday that police have identified the woman in the video but refuse to divulge her nationality, saying it would jeopardize investigations, reports the AP.
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