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Malaysia’s ‘hardship’ tag

Police officers inspect the site of a car bomb attack in southern Thailand’s Narathiwat province.
Police officers inspect the site of a car bomb attack in southern Thailand’s Narathiwat province last year. A 40-day Ramadan ceasefire was instated in the region on Saturday. REUTERS

Malaysia’s ‘hardship’ tag

ON Saturday, a 40-day Ramadan ceasefire was announced between the National Revolutionary Front, the main insurgent movement in southern Thailand, and the central government in Bangkok.

The landmark pact was brokered by Malaysia, and the media carried a photograph of one of its key negotiators, a security official called Zamzamin Hashim.

The name and picture puzzled me at first, but then the penny dropped, and I recalled meeting Zamzamin – call me “Zam” – a decade ago when I was a correspondent in Washington DC.

He was minister counselor at the Malaysian Embassy, although it was clear from our first chat that he was an intelligence operative – and a pretty smart one too.

So it’s no surprise that Zam helped negotiate the first real pact between the often duplicitous Thai authorities and the normally intransigent separatists in the country’s Malay-speaking, Muslim-majority south.

Whether the ceasefire will hold and perhaps presage more substantive accords that might include autonomy provisions is anyone’s guess, though frankly not many people are hopeful.

Still, a temporary lull in the carnage is a relief, and mulling this welcome news, what struck me as ironic was that Zam and I used to lunch at a Washington restaurant called the Thai Kingdom.

Ironic, because it is Bangkok’s stubborn insistence on absolute control over the entire Thai Kingdom that blocks a lasting settlement in the south.

Granting even a sliver of autonomy to any province is viewed by the controlling establishment as the thin end of the wedge. 'Not on our watch' has been every government’s mantra.

But instead of getting bogged down in that Ulster-like quagmire, consider another ironic aspect of last week’s news that also involved Malaysia.

Back in 2004, when I lunched with Zam, it was reported that Malaysia had set up a special police unit to protect “high risk” diplomats after a slew of threats and attacks against foreign missions.

The item intrigued me because seven years earlier I’d written about such attacks and had reported that there’d been about 100 break-ins at the homes of diplomats in Kuala Lumpur over the previous two years.

Partly as a result of this crime spree, Malaysia had been designated as a “hardship post” by many foreign ministries, including those of the United Kingdom and other European countries.

My story, headlined “Hardship in Kuala Lumpur”, caused a furor.

The Malaysian authorities, and the police in particular, went ballistic and not only denied its veracity, but viewed it as an insult to their national pride and competence.

Within days, my office and apartment were raided. “We don’t need a warrant, if you don’t let us in we’ll just arrest you now,” said one of the officers.

Soon afterwards, without any lawyer allowed to be present, I was subjected to intense interrogation for three days by senior officers at the Bukit Aman police headquarters.

It culminated in a torrid clash with the infamous Assistant Commissioner Ramli Yusof, notorious for being present when the former Malaysian Deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim was given a black eye.

Fortunately, my story was rock solid and a stream of angry diplomats came forward to support me, so the case was dropped.

Years later, when lunching with Zam and reading about ongoing robberies in KL, I naturally felt a wry sense of validation, coupled with surprise that it was still happening.

Today, another nine years further on, one would surely think the problem has been solved and that diplomats can feel safe in KL.

Think again.

Two weeks ago, burglars ransacked the home of Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin in Bukit Damansara, a district favoured by foreign missions in the Malaysian capital.

The homes of diplomats and other prominent figures, including the sister of DPM Muhyiddin Yassin, were also burgled over the past two months.

It seems clear that Malaysia needs a root and branch review of its police force, overseen by smart and dispassionate assessors like Zam, otherwise it will never shed that shameful hardship tag.

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