By Ernie Bower
The White House faces a difficult decision regarding President Barack Obama’s planned trip to Malaysia in April, a visit that would be the first by a U.S. president in nearly half a century. Should he still visit after the stunning news that a Malaysian court on Friday overturned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s earlier acquittal, sentencing him to five years in prison, and did so just three days before he was to be named a candidate in a by-election in Malaysia’s wealthy western state of Selangor? The answer is yes, there are new requirements for engagement in Asia that compel the president to carry on with his historic visit.
There will be well-intentioned calls for the White House to boycott the trip and once again see a U.S. president fly over Malaysia on the way to other Asian countries. Visiting Kuala Lumpur will be difficult, but it is necessary. I argued in a CSIS Commentary last week, before the court decision, that President Obama needs five key ingredients for a successful visit to Malaysia. The new development in the Anwar case suggests that a sixth element should be added. Ahead of the trip, or during if that is not possible, Obama should honestly express strong U.S. concern in- private with his counterpart, Prime Minister Najib Razak, over the apparent use of Malaysia’s courts for political purposes, and appeal to Najib to recommend that the king pardon Anwar.
Following Friday’s verdict, Election Commission chairman Abdul Aziz Yusof said that the court ruling was unprecedented and would have to be studied to ensure due process. However, he noted, “Under the law, by right, if a person is jailed more than a year or is fined more than RM2,000 [$600], he or she automatically loses the right to contest in the elections.” Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch put a point on what most Malaysians and foreign observers believe: “This trial was all about knocking Anwar Ibrahim out of politics and the government was prepared to do whatever it took to make that happen.”
So the issue for the White House is whether to attempt to send a message to Najib and Malaysia by cancelling President Obama’s visit or to take the hard road and make the trip. Following through would demonstrate to Malaysians that the United States cares deeply about the relationship with them and their country. It would recognize the fact that Malaysia is evolving politically and that Malaysians want more of a say in their governance. Skipping Malaysia would make its citizens wonder where the United States stands. It would allow others to define what is important to the United States and where it hopes to go with its relationship with Malaysia.
Visiting Kuala Lumpur would also avoid a trap that has too often defined U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia since the end of the war in Vietnam—resorting to disengagement, high-handed rhetoric, and sanctions to “punish” regimes for policies or transgressions. This creates a sense of resentment, limits U.S. leverage and influence, and gives a sense of inconsistency to would- be partners. Such behavior led to losing contact with a generation of Indonesia’s military, and currently undercuts U.S. capabilities to be helpful and understand Thailand as it works through its political crisis. Getting involved, visiting even when the situation is difficult, and connecting with a wide range of people has repeatedly delivered better results. Consider U.S. policy in Vietnam and Myanmar, which show that ending sanctions, opening doors, and sending leaders to engage, discuss, and understand generally improves relations. Being involved on the ground allows U.S. officials access to practical solutions to problems and empowers those who want to make things better.
The United States has a great deal at stake in getting Malaysia right. It is an important economic and geostrategic partner. History will almost certainly show that the court’s abhorrent decision to disenfranchise the leader of the opposition will result in developments counter to those the judges intended. The United States should be direct and forthright in expressing its concerns ahead of the trip. President Obama should convey his concerns directly to Prime Minister Najib when he meets him, and the president’s schedule should include an event that allows him to meet leaders of various political parties, including those in the opposition.
Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies & codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.