Friday 1 November 2002

Mahathir's drive against militants wins over West

Malaysia's outspoken prime minister is a key ally in the war against terrorism. He talked to Joe Jenkins in Putrajaya

There have been occasions over the years when many western leaders would have privately cheered the departure of Malaysia's prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad. A man who has specialised in the anti-imperialist rhetoric of an earlier age, he is famed for aiming his fire at the West.
But whatever his shortcomings as a diplomat, Dr Mahathir is back in fashion with the West. A fearsome enemy of radical Islam in an ever more volatile region, he has suddenly become an important element in the struggle against terrorism in South-East Asia.
It is familiar territory for the 76-year-old leader. "We have had dealings with terrorists for a long time," Dr Mahathir said at his office in Malaysia's new administrative capital, Putrajaya, just outside Kuala Lumpur.
"From 1948 until 1990 we had domestic terrorism, because the pro-communist groups wanted to overthrow the colonial government. When we became independent [from Britain in 1957], they wanted to overthrow the elected government."
In many ways, the instinctive authoritarianism of Dr Mahathir's regime foreshadowed what the West now seems to hope for from South-East Asia. In stark contrast to its giant neighbour, Indonesia, Malaysia has taken tough action against Islamic radicals over the past two years.
The security forces have arrested more than 70 suspected members of the KMM, the Malaysian Mujahedin Group, a partner of Jemaah Islamiah, which is widely blamed for the attack in Bali which claimed 191 lives.
The fact that several KMM members who were arrested have also been members of the radical Islamic opposition, the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, or Pas, which governs two Malaysian states, has handed Dr Mahathir a large club with which to beat the party.
"The younger generation of this party feels there is no way they can become the government of Malaysia through the ballot box," he said.
"Some of them went to Pakistan, then subsequently to Afghanistan where they met up with the Taliban and al-Qa'eda. They were indoctrinated in how to destabilise a country, and they have the ambition to establish a Muslim nation consisting of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines."
Radicals have been allowed too much freedom by President Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose "weak government" and tolerance of extreme Islam, he implies, can be held responsible for the Bali attack. Dr Mahathir artfully lists a string of reasons for his action against Islamists, though interestingly there is no mention of the most obvious motivation of all - that religious parties are the biggest threat to him and his multi-racial coalition.
"These people who are giving a bad name to Islam are people who deviate from the true teachings of Islam, and people are getting a little bit fed up with it," he said.
If unchecked, their actions will have catastrophic ramifications for a region still recovering from a crippling economic crisis five years ago. "People are not investing, people are jittery, tourists are afraid to fly. All these sort of things affect our economy."
The change in fortunes for Malaysia is unmistakable. The prime minister was widely condemned for his treatment of Anwar Ibrahim, his chosen successor, who was jailed for 15 years in 2000 following a questionable trial on sodomy and corruption charges after he had threatened to expose cronyism at the highest levels.
But this week, the Bush administration asked Malaysia to house a regional anti-terrorism centre to co-ordinate efforts to prevent a repeat of the Bali bombing in neighbouring Indonesia.
To a leader planning to step down next year after 22 years in power and clearly beginning to worry about his legacy, this may also seem an endorsement of a formidable reign that has brought prosperity, but smothered political freedoms.
Despite America's courting of Malaysia, Dr Mahathir - or Dr M as he is known by friend and foe after his years as a provincial GP - remains edgy about the superpower's influence, and especially its intentions towards Iraq.
"I don't believe that you should punish the people of Iraq because you don't like their leader," he said.
"Saddam Hussein is not being punished. He's fat, and he is eating enough food and living in palaces. But his people are punished by denying them food and medicine."