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TheAge: Mahathir capitalises on terrorism fear
By Mark Baker

19/1/2002 12:52 am Sat

Mahathir capitalises on terrorism fear

Saturday 19, January 2002

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 away.

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 fortunes.

"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 ISA.

Now the only sound coming from the US is praise for Malaysia's resolute response to the threat of terrorism.