Malaysia's Ruler, Engaged in Major Crackdown, Visits the White House

Has Donald Trump ever met an authoritarian leader he didn’t want to invite to the White House? Since taking office in January, Trump has welcomed a slew of abusive leaders from Egypt to Vietnam. The next visitor is Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who will visit visit President Trump at the White House on September 12. Members of Congress, who will also be meeting Najib, should communicate clearly to Najib that Trump’s embrace does not signal general US disregard of the human rights violations he’s committed to save his own skin and political career.

Since taking office in 2009, Najib has led a major crackdown on dissent. Although he claimed in a speech in April 2017 that freedom of speech was “thriving” in Malaysia, the reality is far different. The government has arrested dozens of opposition politicians and activists, charging them with sedition and other criminal offenses for criticizing the government or Najib on social media. Newspapers publishing reports critical of the government have been shuttered, and participants in peaceful protests have been arrested and charged with violating Malaysia’s restrictive Peaceful Assembly Law.

Embroiled in a massive corruption scandal involving the siphoning of hundreds of millions of dollars from the government-run fund known as 1 Malaysia Berhad (1MDB), Najib’s government has used all the tools at its disposal to limit discussion of that scandal. The auditor general’s report into 1MDB was declared an “official secret,” and an opposition politician, Rafizi Ramli, is currently appealing a sentence of 18 months in prison for disclosing a page of that report.

After Khairuddin Abu Hassan, a former member of Najib’s political party, provided information about 1MDB to international investigators, police detained both him and his lawyer for more than two months under a law designed for “security offenses.” Only when a Malaysia court ordered Khairuddin released did he regain his freedom. Two newsmen, the CEO and editor-in-chief of the online news portal Malaysiakini, now face criminal charges for posting footage of a news conference in which Khairuddin criticized Malaysia’s attorney general for clearing Najib of all wrongdoing in the 1MDB scandal.

Najib has also used religion for political purposes in dangerous ways, effectively encouraging the rise of religious intolerance in Malaysia by promoting a “pro-Islamic” agenda to appeal to conservative Malay Muslim voters as part of his effort to hold onto power. Malaysia has long had a dual legal system, with states permitted to regulate certain family and personal law matters for Muslims through Sharia (Islamic law) courts. A bill to increase the penalties that can be imposed by such courts from three years to 20 years is pending in Parliament, and the state of Kelantan recently passed a law permitting public caning for Sharia offenses. In August, a minister in the prime minister’s office called for tracking down “atheists,” and statutes of winged women were removed from a local park after complaints that they were “offensive” to Muslims.

With the US Justice Department seeking the forfeiture of more than US$1 billion in assets that were allegedly purchased in the US with funds looted from 1MDB, based on a civil complaint that alleges that hundreds of millions of dollars were deposited in Najib’s personal account, Najib is precisely the kind of leader for whom at Trump should not roll out the red carpet at the White House. It’s quite clear that Najib is desperate to show that his international reputation is untarnished by the 1MDB scandal, and Trump’s invitation provides just the boost Najib was looking for. It is a boost he does not deserve.

The kind of Southeast Asian partner that the United States needs to help counter terrorism and sectarian violence in the region is not one that jails its critics and promotes religious intolerance. Congress should be telling the Trump administration that Malaysia is only valuable as a US partner if it respects the rights of its own citizens embraces both political discourse and dissent, and protects religious diversity.

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John Sifton is the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

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