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TheAge: Mahathir capitalises on terrorism fear
By Mark Baker
19/1/2002 12:52 am Sat
By MARK BAKER
Each night for the past week a startling image has appeared on
Malaysia's two government-controlled television stations in the
middle of the nightly news bulletins.
In slow motion, a turbaned gunman is shown firing his Kalashnikov
rifle at the head of a kneeling woman who wears the ubiquitous burka
of the Taliban era.
Interspersed with scenes of American aircraft bombing suspected
terrorist hide-outs in Afghanistan and footage of the leaders of a
bizarre local religious cult, are shown members of the country's
biggest opposition party, the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party, attending
their annual congress.
While the voice-over does not mention the PAS by name, the
message accompanying the scenes of the execution leaves no doubt
about the propaganda's intended target: "These are the tell-tale
signs if the country were to be governed by a crude administration of
extremists and religious militants ... what had befallen Afghan women
would befall women in this country." As the US planes drop their
bombs, the narrator adds: "Surely Malaysians do not wish the
country to be in such a state where a foreign power is needed to
rescue it from its predicament by military might."
The politics of smear has a long history in Malaysia, where Mahathir
Mohamad has entrenched his 20-year rule with a crude but effective
mixture of patronage and intimidation - both inside the ruling United
Malays National Organisation and against its political rivals. Since
September 11 the game has become a lot tougher, with Dr Mahathir
exploiting the global anti-terrorist campaign to reassert his authority,
and with the tightly controlled mainstream national media falling into
line with even more alacrity than usual.
The campaign to paint the PAS as a party of extremist fanatics -
triggered by alarm within the government at a dramatic shift in the
support of Malay heartland voters away from UMNO to the opposition
- began long before the attacks on the US. It has moved into
overdrive since September.
The arrest in Singapore last week of 13 men linked to the
Indonesian-based religious movement Jemaah Islamiah - accused
by Singapore authorities of having ties with Osama bin Laden's al
Qaeda network and plotting to bomb the US embassy and other
American targets - has given a fillip to Dr Mahathir's repeated claims
that Malaysia faces a serious threat from Islamic extremism and, by
implication, that only his strong leadership can save the day.
According to Singapore officials, who tracked the group after the
discovery of a videotape and documents detailing potential targets in
the wreckage of an al Qaeda leader's house in Afghanistan in
December, they are part of a terrorist network that also operates in
Malaysia and Indonesia. One of those arrested, Malaysian Faiz Abu
Bafana, was claimed to have stockpiled four tonnes of ammonium
nitrate at an undisclosed location in Malaysia in preparation for
making truck bombs.
But despite a claim late last week by Dr Mahathir that about 50
Malaysians had been recruited by al Qaeda, Malaysian authorities
have yet to make public evidence demonstrating the existence of
any serious terrorist network within the country - let alone evidence
that the PAS is implicated in or sympathetic to terrorism. While police
say 13 Malaysians detained in December had links with Zacarias
Moussaoui - a French national on trial in the US for his alleged role
in the September 11 attacks who visited Malaysia twice in late 2000
- the significance, if any, of those contacts remains unknown. Like
25 others arrested in Malaysia since last August for alleged terrorist
activity - including two more detained after the Singapore arrests -
all of the suspects have been jailed under the infamous Internal
Security Act, which allows authorities to detain people without trial
for up to two years without having to establish a case against them.
In a remarkable statement at the weekend, Dr Mahathir said that he
was convinced of a link between the Jemaah Islamiah detainees in
Singapore and a purported Malaysian militant group known as KMM,
blamed for a series of unsolved bombings and robberies and the
murder of a state MP. "I am confident they (local militants) have links
with those in Singapore but I do not have any evidence," he said.
The government's claims began to look even more tenuous this week
when Dr Mahathir's deputy, Abdullah Badawi, insisted that the
alleged stockpile of ammonium nitrate had been in Malaysia but had
now been taken out of the country. He could not say where it had
been, where it had gone, who had brought it or who had taken it
What is evident is that the government is stepping up its efforts to use
the terrorist bogy to whip its political opponents, particularly in the
lead-up to today's byelection in the northern state of Perlis, which is
being anticipated as an important test of the state of UMNO's
"The events of September 11 have been a tragedy for us," said Wan
Azizah, leader of the opposition party Keadilan and wife of former
deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is serving a 15-year jail
sentence on widely discredited sex and corruption charges. "They
have given Dr Mahathir the justification for further oppression and to
stifle any dissenting voices. He now has the perfect excuse to take
people under the ISA."
She concedes that a seat that would easily have been captured from
a government tainted by corruption and arrogance before last
September may well deliver an increased majority for UMNO. "But
they still see us a threat. They are spending a lot of money, they
have thousands of people on the ground up there and a lot of our
people are being attacked and threatened," she said.
The opposition's fortunes have not been helped by bickering within
Keadilan or by the decision of PAS leaders to continue voicing
sympathy for the Taliban long after it became dangerously
unfashionable, and by denouncing the impact of US air strikes on the
Afghan people. The PAS's continuing advocacy of an Islamic state -
albeit one which recognises the rights of Malaysia's Chinese and
Indian minorities - has also played into Dr Mahathir's hands and late
last year triggered the defection of the Chinese-based Democratic
Action Party from the opposition alliance.
Dr Mahathir's brazen exploitation of the terrorist issue to strengthen
his position has been made much easier by the political blank
cheque issued by the US to all who have signed up to its global
campaign against terrorism. Prior to September Malaysia was under
strong pressure from the US over its human rights record, its
treatment of Anwar Ibrahim and the continued arbitrary use of the
Now the only sound coming from the US is praise for Malaysia's resolute response to the threat of terrorism.