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Friday June 24, 2011

DIPLOMATICALLY SPEAKING By DENNIS IGNATIUS

Current developments in the Arab world can provide both challenges and opportunities for Malaysia. But wise decision is needed to support positive changes in the region.

AS the turmoil in the Middle East deepens, countries like Malaysia are slowly being drawn into the crisis. How we respond could well have a profound impact on Malaysia’s future relations with the Arab world.

We always knew that most of the region was ruled by undemocratic, often ruthless leaders, but, like our friends in the West, we closed our eyes to this inconvenient truth. Both “non-interference” and “OIC solidarity” offered us a “principled” excuse for saying and doing nothing about the injustices that were a daily fact of life in the region.

Now, however, the people themselves are rising up, demanding freedom and respect, an end to impunity and corruption, wanting more than the miserable existence they have endured all these decades.

An irresistible, unstoppable yearning for change has been unleashed and there’s no going back.

In the cynical and opportunistic world of diplomacy, freedom is tolerated when it is convenient and ignored when it is not.

And so we see firm Western resolve in dealing with Libya but only talk when it comes to dealing with Syria and Yemen.

In strategic Bahrain, home of the US fifth fleet, peaceful protests have been violently suppressed without too much international umbrage.

In the early days of the uprisings, Malaysia said little save for some self-serving remarks about being a model for the region. Wisma Putra’s website, for example, did not contain a single policy statement concerning political developments in the Middle East.

Now, following high-level discussions with Saudi Arabia, we appear to be aligning ourselves firmly with the region’s autocratic governments.

The Saudi royal family is known to be deeply alarmed by the popular uprisings currently sweeping the region. They were especially unnerved, and unhappy, over the way the Americans ditched Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

The feeling is that a more proactive strategy to secure the survival of the region’s royal families and rulers is urgently needed.

Saudi-led forces from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) decisively crushed the uprising in Bahrain.

In Yemen, the Saudis continue to support President Ali Abdullah Saleh (who is now in a Saudi hospital) while working behind the scenes to replace him.

The Saudis have also extended US$4bil (RM12.1bil) in assistance to the interim government in Egypt and have invited Morocco and Jordan to join an extended GCC. And, despite uneasy relations with Syria, Saudi Arabia has declared its support for the al-Assad regime.

At the same time, an informal alliance of nations, centred around the GCC, is being forged. Malaysia, Pakistan, Indonesia and key central Asian nations have been approached.

The alliance is being promoted as a response to the threat from Iran but is designed to protect the region’s ruling dynasties from internal challenges as well.

Following the visit of Prince Bandar to Malaysia in March, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak declared his full backing for the Saudi-led military intervention in Bahrain.

Subsequently, after a private meeting with King Abdullah in Riyadh, Najib offered to send “peacekeepers” to Bahrain to assist GCC forces. GCC forces, however, can hardly be considered peacekeepers in the normal sense of the term.

On April 29th, the UN Human Rights Council debated a resolution expressing grave concern over the deliberate killings, arrests, and torture of peaceful protesters by Syrian authorities. The resolution also called for a UN mission to investigate the continuing violence there.

Tellingly, Malaysia voted against the resolution, thus throwing a lifeline to the al-Assad regime which has arrested, tortured and murdered hundreds of its own people in an on-going effort to suppress a peoples revolt there.

[The case of Hamza al-Khateeb captures the true nature of this regime. According to news reports, his jaw and both knee-caps had been smashed. His penis had been cut off. His body was covered with burns and bruises from cigarettes, electric shock and beatings. And he was all of thirteen years old! ]

All this invariably raises fundamental concerns about the direction and wisdom of our West Asia policy.

It is, of course, understandable, given our close relationship with the region, that we would want to be helpful during these difficult and challenging times.

However, should we be lending support to unpopular and undemocratic regimes fighting their own people? Should we participate in suppressing domestic dissent in other countries? Is it consistent with our national values, and public sentiment, to support brutal regimes like the one in Syria? Shouldn’t we be working to foster dialogue and cooperation in the Islamic world instead of exacerbating divisions and tensions?

Clearly, on-going developments in the Arab world provide both challenges and opportunities for Malaysia.

Through imaginative diplomacy, we could support a peaceful and orderly transition in the region that might usher in a much needed era of peace, progress and prosperity.

On the other hand, if we join in crushing the hopes and aspirations of the Arab peoples, who knows what kind of monster will rise from its ashes?

We would do well to give serious thought to all these implications before jumping into the cauldron of Middle East politics.

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