Barack Obama in first Malaysia visit by US leader since 1966

Last Updated: Saturday, April 26, 2014 - 13:52

Kuala Lumpur: US President Barack Obama arrives Saturday in Malaysia hoping to energise aloof ties with a Muslim-majority nation whose government is under the microscope for wide allegations of abuse of power and the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

After stops in Japan and South Korea, Obama becomes the first serving US president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson in 1966 as he tours Asia to fortify alliances amid concern over China`s rise and push his troubled plans for a Pacific-wide trade pact.

Battling image problems in the Islamic world, Washington is keen to emphasise its relations with economically successful, moderate-Muslim Malaysia.

But while seeking warmer US ties, Malaysia also is a close trading partner of China and has resisted key aspects of Obama`s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.

The president, who arrives late Saturday afternoon -- is expected to try to ease Prime Minister Najib Razak`s concerns on the trade deal.
But crises elsewhere in the world, especially the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, have distracted Obama from the main objectives of a trip meant to emphasise US engagement with Asia.

Obama will tread a fine line between courting Najib and acknowledging the huge numbers in multi-cultural Malaysia who are fed up with the corruption-plagued coalition in power for 57 years.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim called the government a "corrupt and authoritarian regime" in a statement Saturday that urged Obama to stand up for "freedom and democracy."

"It would be an opportune moment to live up to the ideals Obama espoused in his campaign and the early days of his administration," Anwar said.

US-Malaysian relations remain coloured by bickering during the 1981-2003 tenure of authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad, a harsh critic of US policies, though trade ties have remained solid.
Najib, who portrays himself abroad as a reformer and religious moderate, has sought to improve US relations.

But he faces growing criticism for harassing opponents and stifling free expression, particularly after elections last year in which the government lost the popular vote to Anwar`s opposition.

Najib clung to power via what critics say is a skewed electoral system favouring his coalition.

Anwar was convicted March 7 and sentenced to five years in jail on controversial sodomy charges he says are politically motivated and which the US State Department has questioned. 

A number of other opposition politicians and government critics face a range of charges including sedition, while Christians complain of official intimidation.

In an interview with government-controlled The Star newspaper published Saturday, Obama said mildly that countries are successful when they "uphold the human rights of all their citizens, regardless of political affiliation, ethnicity, race or religion".

Obama will not see Anwar -- National Security Advisor Susan Rice will -- but he meets late Sunday with representatives of several groups critical of the government.

Amnesty International issued a statement calling on Obama to "speak out on behalf of all those whose voices are being silenced by the Malaysian authorities."

Malaysia is among several nations with competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, where Beijing`s assertiveness has sparked alarm.

In the newspaper interview, Obama touted growing security cooperation with Malaysia as a way to ensure "freedom of navigation in critical waterways" and that nations "play by the same rules" -- a clear reference to China.

Najib is believed to be keen for a dose of Obama`s star power amid the domestic criticism and loss of MH370, which disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8.

His government has come under international criticism over the missing plane and a response seen as secretive and incompetent.

Obama meets Malaysia`s king Saturday and attends a state dinner. 

On Sunday, he visits the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur and has talks with Najib, before a "town hall" meeting with youth leaders from around Southeast Asia.

He leaves Monday morning for the Philippines.

AFP

First Published: Saturday, April 26, 2014 - 13:52

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