Mahathir at the UNGA: Undermining Malaysia’s Long Standing Pillar of Non- Interference

Last month during the United Nations General Assembly session, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad created a diplomatic faux pas of sorts rarely seen in the history of Malaysia’s foreign policy as an independent state. His speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resonated in several parts an abandonment of Malaysia’s long held principle in foreign policy – non-interference in internal affairs of another sovereign country. On two occasions Prime Minister Mahathir moved away from the foreign policy pillar of both Malaysia and the ASEAN as he referred to issues relating to the Rohingyas and the Kashmir issue. A careful reading of his speech at the UNGA clearly shows Prime Minister Mahathir linking the Rohingya issue in the same breath as Kashmir, which does not lend credence to a statesman of the caliber of Mahathir Mohamad. Why these two issues cannot be linked together needs to be placed in correct perspective.

Prime Minister Mahathir raised the case of the Rohingya repatriation and the conditions under which they could return. He clearly stated that the Rohingyas could not return as a result of the trust deficit with the Myanmar military and that a ‘non-Myanmar’ protection needs to be given to them, eliciting a defensive response from Myanmar. Prior to the UNGA session in early August in a press conference at Putrajaya, the Malaysian capital, the Prime Minister irked the anger of the political leadership in Myanmar by stating that the Rohingyas should be given citizenship or should be given a ‘self governing territory’. This statement received heated responses from Myanmar stating that Mahathir had violated ASEAN’s long held principle of non-interference in internal affairs of another ASEAN member. Both these references by Prime Minister Mahathir come in the aftermath of the 34 th ASEAN Summit held in Thailand in June 2019. The run up to the summit witnessed a critical focus on the Rohingya issue which has been at the forefront of ASEAN deliberations for over three years. The Chairman’s statement in June this year highlighted the need to address this issue bringing the full regional focus on Myanmar and its role in the Rohingya crisis. The Prime Minister’s comments at the UNGA undermined ASEAN efforts on the matter, bringing Myanmar back into defensive posture.

The Kashmir issue differs from the Rohingya crisis in that the provisions of a special status to the region which were provided through a temporary clause in the Indian Constitution were revoked in August 2019. The removal of Article 370 from the Constitution was a part of the ruling party’s election manifesto and was implemented in the aftermath of the BJP’s electoral victory in May 2019. The provision removes the special status given to the region of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcate the state into two union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Issues of ethnic and religious identity of Ladakh have also been preserved by this act which had hitherto been marginalized in the context of the focus on Kashmir. While the revocation of Article 370 brings with it challenges that must be addressed by the Indian government it is a matter that is internal and to be dealt with domestically.

At the international level, there has been a considerable shift in how the international community has responded to the matter. India has been engaging in diplomatic efforts particularly in light of the incidents of terrorism from Pakistan which has been a key part of the political instability in Kashmir. While in the 1990’s the support for India’s position was somewhat uncertain, increasingly in the aftermath of 2001 attacks on the United States, there has been growing international support for India’s position vis-à-vis Pakistan. Repeated efforts by India to address the question of cross-border terrorism bilaterally with Pakistan have made no headway. With the Pakistan army deeply entrenched in its support to the terror groups that are fighting in Afghanistan, the fall out on the internal dynamics of state security for India have been critically impacted. This is a reality that the international community has begun to recognise, members of which have extended support for India to follow what is in its national interest.

Bilaterally the statement from Mahathir Mohamad is likely to have some repercussions especially in terms of affecting the dialogue on the extradition of Zakir Naik. This is an issue close to India and the recent stand-off with Malaysia may impact the political dialogue between the two. On the economic front news reports in India have highlighted the consideration to stop import of palmolein from Malaysia. India ranks number one globally as an importer of palmolein and Malaysia is one of the major sources for this. Increasingly in the aftermath of the current stand-off India has been considering shifting its imports to Indonesia, a decision which may leave Malaysia red faced.

Just two months prior to the UNGA session, on 23 July 2019, the Malaysian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on its long held principles of non-interference as the cornerstone of its foreign policy towards other sovereign nations. This statement was issued in the context of civil society organizations (CSO’s). Reiterating that Civil Society Organizations are recognized within the democratic framework of the Malaysian state, the statement also highlighted that the CSO’s statement need not reflect the views of the Malaysian government clearly establishing the gap between how CSO’s and the Malaysian government would look at issues relating to internal or domestic affairs in other countries. Moreover, while the Prime Minister’s speech clearly highlighted the issues of democracy and human rights in the context of the Rohingyas and Kashmir, he did not even once refer to the brewing political crisis in Hong Kong. Selectively applying the principles of non-interference in foreign policy towards other sovereign countries cannot be an option.

Professor Shankari Sundararaman is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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