As Cambodian and Thai soldiers maintain the precarious cease-fire at Preah Vihear, Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim brings the issue of Asean’s involvement in a country’s affairs down to a simple equation.
For him, Asean’s intervention goes without saying any time a member country starts killing its own people or those of its neighbors. “That is human rights abuse that transcends national, religious or cultural boundaries,” he said.
“When you talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict or the [genocide] in Rwanda or apartheid in South Africa, why do you intervene? You intervene precisely because you are convinced that this is a major transgression of human rights,” he said yesterday. “The whole notion of nonintervention is, to my mind, clearly obsolete.”
Mr Anwar was in Phnom Penh this weekend to speak at the fifth Asian Renaissance seminar. Organized by the Institute for Policy Research, which he founded, and supported by the Sasa-kawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo, the seminars bring together young Asian leaders, including Cambodians, to discuss the region’s long-term issues.
Discussions are not only about “clamoring for reforms or democracy” but to translate this into steps to be taken and institutions to be built, Mr Anwar explained.
“Behind it is to understand that when you talk about freedom, human dignity, free media, independent judiciary, cultural empowerment: The ideals of the great sages of Asia are also towards that end,” he said.
One must “debunk this thinking” that totalitarian regimes and judiciary systems controlled by governments are Asia’s culture. “Asia can be Asia, but Asian does not mean that you must condone corruption, denigrate dignity or human beings,” he said.
Mr Anwar, who was Malaysia’s finance minister and deputy prime minister in the 1990s, started to lose favor with the ruling United Malays National Organization when he introduced the anticorruption legislation while acting prime minister in 1997. Tried and jailed on charges that were later dismissed, he was elected in 2008 and is now opposition leader at the helm of the People’s Justice Party.
Though he was brought to trial last year on sodomy charges leveled against him in 2008, Human Rights Watch called on the Malaysian government to drop the charges in March 2010, saying the trial was “plagued by serious due process problems and government interference.” The trial resumed two weeks ago after a three-month hiatus.
Regardless of his dealings with the Malaysian courts, Mr Anwar refuses to equate Asia with authoritarianism.
“To suggest that Asian values can condone corruption or denial of basic rights is to insult Asian philosophy,” which amounts to much more than respect toward one’s elders or filial obedience, he said.
Until last month, similar generalizations had been used for the Middle East to the effect that Arab or Islamic culture could only lead to democracy with difficulty, Mr Anwar said.
“This argument is flawed: The largest Muslim country in the world is Indonesia. Turkey is now a vibrant democracy. This notion has been debunked by the developments unfolding in the Middle East.”
Mr Anwar expects the popular movement that led to the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Feb 11 to have a strong influence—and a positive one—in the Middle East and Asia.
Although Egypt has lost some of its prestige over the years, it still is considered the intellectual capital of the Arab world, he said.
“What cannot be underestimated is the position of cultural, religious influence of Egypt in the Muslim world, including Asia. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, in Muslim India…they invariably would have someone in the family, in the village or community who have gone to Egypt.” For example, there are 13,000 Malaysian students in Egypt, he said.
“So people will follow developments in Egypt,” whether or not information is censored, Mr Anwar said.
“I believe this is probably phenomenal change and positive for all: for democratization, for freedom and for understanding the extent of repression and hypocrisy of leaders talking about service to the nation and squandering billions from the public purse,” he said.