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Asia should break silence

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Members of the Sri Lankan web journalist association hold placards with the image of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration outside the Saudi Embassy in Colombo on October 25. LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/afp

Asia should break silence

Most Asian governments have refrained from condemning the shocking torture and murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Why?

Just as bosses hate dealing with difficult employees, governments hate difficult citizens.

Employers as a last resort can sack their recalcitrant staff but that’s not an option for governments, much as they may wish to strip away their detractors’ citizenship.

Generally speaking, governments in states with working democracies – meaning there are strong enough institutions like an independent judiciary, and free press to check those in power – have to suffer the inconvenience and irritation of fierce critics and dissidents. But suffer they will, for the most part.

But governments in paper democracies – where elections are held but the watchdog institutions are muzzled or mostly toothless – have very low tolerance for dissent, opposition and anyone who poses a threat and they make no pretence of playing nice to these difficult people.

Hated citizen

By now, the world knows how unnice a government can be to a hated citizen in the horrifying torture and murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

The journalist, a strong critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who was in self-imposed exile in the US, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to obtain documents to marry his Turkish fiancee on October 2 and never came out again.

The whole bizarre saga is still unfolding as the Saudi government twists and turns in giving its account of what happened in that consulate, which is now a murder site.

Khashoggi’s death at the hands of his own government is reminiscent of the assassination of North Korean Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur in February 2017.

Kim’s death was allegedly state sanctioned as analysts believe it was ordered by his half-brother Kim Jong-un who wanted to eliminate any competitor who could challenge his position as supreme leader of North Korea.

The murders of Khashoggi and Kim show how authoritarian governments have no qualms about resorting to extreme tactics to silence permanently those they deem enemies of the state, even on foreign soil.

While the outrage, condemnation and calls for sanctions and boycott over Khashoggi’s death have come largely from Western states, the response from the East has been far more muted and even non-existent in some countries.

The “strongest” statements came from Indonesian president Joko Widodo who called for a “transparent and thorough investigation” and Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who described it as an unacceptable “act of extreme cruelty”.

Unresolved cases

It was the right thing to do but even in Malaysia there are several cases of murdered and missing people that took place when the previous Barisan Nasional government was in power which demand answers.

Crying for closure is the October 2006 murder of Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu in Shah Alam, Selangor, whose death was pinned on the two police officers who shot her and blew up her body with C4 explosives. Both men were found guilty of the crime and sentenced to death.

The strongly-held belief is – like in the elaborately planned assassination of Khashoggi – someone really high up must have given the kill order to the two police commandos who otherwise had no reason or motive to kill a woman they had never met.

Yet another unresolved case that haunts Malaysians is the daylight abduction of Pastor Raymond Koh on February 13 last year.

The manner in which Koh was stopped and removed from his car by a well-coordinated group of masked men in five vehicles and two motorbikes within a minute smacked of a professionally run operation.

Suspicion has fallen on the police, as the wife of another abductee, activist Amri Che Mat, claimed a police officer told her that the team from Special Branch that had taken her husband in November 2016 was also behind Koh’s abduction.

Also believed to be abducted are Christian pastor Joshua Hilmy – who converted from Islam – and his wife Ruth, who were reported missing in March last year.

Because of the “professional” way they were kidnapped, were these people – Amri was accused of spreading Shia Islam – taken in because they were deemed religious threats to national security? But why the need to silence them in such a cloak-and-dagger fashion?

Unanswered questions also arise in the murders of deputy public prosecutor Kevin Morais (his alleged killers’ trial is ongoing) and former AmBank chairman Hussain Najadi that many suspect could be linked to the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal.

When it came to criticism by the media, the BN government did try to silence the critics by its generous use of the Sedition Act but fortunately, no Malaysian journalist disappeared or ended up dead.

Yet, one wonders how close was Malaysia to the edge and falling into the dark abyss of unfettered state sanctioned terror against its citizens had the BN won the last general election and continued its increasingly untenable and corrupt rule?

That’s why it is imperative for Malaysians to hold Mahathir and his Pakatan Harapan government to their repeated promise to return the nation to the rule of law.

And that means dealing with difficult, critical citizens by the book; if they are really threats to national security, charge them openly in court for all to see.

Saudi influence

Beyond Malaysia, I agree with Sri Lankan journalist Lucien Rajakarunanayake who, writing in The Island newspaper, opines that Khashoggi’s murder elicited little protest from other Asian countries, particularly Asian democracies because of the “Islamic influence, and the economic power of Saudi Arabia.”

Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan candidly admitted he had to put his country’s desperate need for funding from from the Saudis first. Apart from economic interests, I would add Muslim-majority nations also have their haj pilgrim quotas to protect.

But what can we expect? From India to China and many Asian countries in-between, not many are any better than Saudi Arabia when it comes to human rights and tolerating dissent.

According to Amnesty International, many states have detained, jailed and even killed critical, outspoken citizens in the name of national security.

Where the Philippine government is concerned, it has killed thousands under its widely condemned anti-drugs campaign.

Sri Lanka, says Rajakarunanayake, has another reason for keeping mum. It has yet to shed light on the two cases of murdered journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga and abducted and missing journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, despite a change of government.

As for China, if nations hold their tongue where Saudi Arabia is concerned because of its economic influence, they would probably prefer to bite it off rather than take issue with Big Brother Beijing’s human rights record and treatment of dissidents.

Rajakarunanayake wonders what is the Asian, especially South Asian, commitment to democracy and human rights.

I would say on a scale of one to ten, it’s three for most nations and maybe four for a few. Aisa news network

June HL Wong is a columnist with the Star Media Group.

The Asian Writers’ Circle is a series of column on global affairs written by top editors and writers from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers, websites and social media platforms across the region.

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