Senior U.S. Official Gives Malaysia Thumbs-Up

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Malaysia is a "beacon of stability" in south-east Asia, and the U.S. was pleased with the support its government and people had given to the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism, a senior administration official said.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly ended a three-day visit to Malaysia Monday praising Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who will pay a visit to the White House next month.

"In the case of President Bush it is very important to say thank you to a respected leader for a very stirring response in the global campaign against terror," Kelly told a press conference in Kuala Lumpur.

The veteran Asian leader has walked a fine line between voicing support for the broader goals of the U.S.-led anti-terror campaign and opposing the war in Afghanistan, which he said had harmed innocents.

Similarly, on the Mideast crisis he has long supported the Palestinians' demand for a state, but caused a stir at a recent conference of Islamic foreign ministers when he proposed a definition of terrorism that would include both Israeli military actions and Palestinian suicide bombings.

The conference, hosted by Malaysia, subsequently issued a declaration specifically rejecting the view that any action taken by Palestinians in the context of their fight against Israel should be regarded as terrorism.

Mahathir himself later told the official Bernama news agency in reference to Palestinian suicide bombers that, "when people use terror against you, it is legitimate to use terror [in response]."

Nonetheless, Kelly said Washington appreciated the remarks made by Mahathir at the Islamic ministers' gathering.

Kelly noted that President Bush had made the same point an a recent address, that organizations or individuals may have grievances, but that could not be used as an excuse to take "violent action against innocent civilians."

Mahathir's visit to the White House will be his first since 1994, and reflects the growing importance to Washington of relations with influential, predominantly moderate Muslim nations.

Ties were strained during the latter years of the Clinton administration over U.S. opposition to the trial and imprisonment of Mahathir's former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, convicted of abuse of power and sodomy.

Mahathir denied Anwar's allegations that the charges were trumped up to prevent him from challenging the man who has ruled Malaysia for two decades.

Washington continues to regard Anwar's trial as having been "very political in nature," Kelly said, but added that he had not raised the issue during his talks with Mahathir.

Anwar was associated with the Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), a party that Mahathir has accused of involvement in terrorist activities, and some of whose members have been among suspects detained under security legislation in recent months.

Analysts say the events of Sept. 11 were a godsend for Mahathir, who had in the months prior to the attacks on the U.S. been trying to strengthen his rule by cracking down on the PAS and its campaign to turn Malaysia into a state based on strict Islamic law.

As suspects were arrested, the clampdown drew fire from human rights campaigners and the judiciary, threatening to compromise Mahathir's legitimacy.

Clive Kessler, an expert on Malaysia at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said the government had arrested PAS activists and other Islamists accused of having connections to Afghanistan and being involved in jihad-type activities in the region.

"Initially greeted with skepticism, this action was soon placed beyond questioning by the events of 11 September," he said.

Not only was domestic criticism of his heavy-handed actions discredited, Kessler said, but "Mahathir could be confident that international criticism of his rule as repressive would end."

Early this year Mahathir said in an interview that one good thing to have come out of the Sept. 11 tragedy was the emergence of Malaysia as "the only Muslim nation that is progressive, democratic and stable."

E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow