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Cablegate: What Is Going On in Malaysia?

VZCZCXRO5505
OO RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHKL #0020/01 0120908
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 120908Z JAN 10
FM AMEMBASSY KUALA LUMPUR
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 3678
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 KUALA LUMPUR 000020

SIPDIS

FROM THE AMBASSADOR FOR EAP A/S CAMPBELL, ACTING A/S
DONOVAN, DAS MARCIEL AND DRL PDAS GLAZE

E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/12/2020
TAGS: MY PGOV PHUM PREL
SUBJECT: WHAT IS GOING ON IN MALAYSIA?

REF: A. KUALA LUMPUR 014 UPDATE ON THE ALLAH ISSUE
B. KUALA LUMPUR 011 OVERNIGHT ATTACKS ON THREE
CHURCHES
C. KUALA LUMPUR 03 GOM APPEALS KUALA LUMPUR HIGH
COURT RULING
D. 09 KUALA LUMPUR 716 CANING PUNISHMENT POSTPONED

Classified By: AMBASSADOR JAMES R. KEITH; REASONS 1.4 (B) AND (D).

1. (C) Two fundamental issues arise in connection with the
Malaysian authorities' handling of the "Allah" case in which
a Malaysian court has ruled unconstitutional the Najib
Administration's effort to ban the use of the word "Allah" by
a Catholic newspaper, publishing in both English and
Malaysian.

Freedom of Religion
-------------------

2. (C) Despite its extensive efforts to reassure expatriate
and foreign audiences, the Malaysian Government has focused
only on protection of property and persons, foregoing an
opportunity to make a clear statement on the maintenance of
freedom of religion in the country.

Rule of Law and the Independence of the Judiciary
--------------------------------------------- ----

3. (C) The Najib Administration's intervention has not been
solely to promote and protect order and social stability.
The Government has underlined the tenuous nature of judicial
independence in the country by intervening to arrange a stay
of the judge's order that the Catholic publication was
allowed to use the word "Allah" in its vernacular text.
Moreover, the Administration has arranged a series of public
comments from figures of authority ranging from the King to
the Sultan of Selangor conveying to Malaysian citizens the
clear message that the authorities are opposed to the judge's
decision and do not foresee a time when the Government would
retreat from its ban of the use of the word "Allah" in
Catholic or other Christian publications.

4. (C) The Administration's unwillingness to stand clearly
for freedom of religion and the forthright application of
legitimate judicial power, even when it is less than
palatable to UMNO, the ruling party, is of concern. That is
particularly the case given the imminent trial of opposition
leader Anwar Ibrahim set to begin on January 25. There has
long been conflict between the ruling party's commitment in
principle to freedom of religion and toleration of diverse
views in practice. Christians and Hindus, especially, find
it hard in some states at some times to build places of
worship or keep them from being plowed under in the name of
development. Chinese Buddhist temples are less problematic
for the established federal and state powers. Jewish places
of worship are strictly forbidden. Similarly, the Malaysian
authorities do not respect in practice the independence of
the judiciary, at least not on a consistent basis in which an
opponent to the ruling party can depend on justice being
served.

5. (C) There remains a debate in Malaysia as to whether the
Prime Minister genuinely intends to enact significant
political reform or, alternatively, whether he is merely
giving lip service to reform objectives so as to coax as many
conservative Malay voters as possible back into warm embrace
of the ruling party after mass defections in the March, 2008
elections. There is evidence that his Administration wishes
to liberalize the economy and recognizes the concomitant
requirement to achieve at least a minimal level of political
reform. He has spoken openly about the need to revise the
New Economic Policy, which embodies affirmative action
provisions for the majority Malays and is the target of
opposition and popular criticism because it establishes the
equivalent of second-class citizenship for the roughly
one-third of Malaysia's population that is either ethnic
Chinese or Indian. Najib has similarly taken small steps to
open up the economy and is on record suggesting the country
must change or perish.

6. (C) But his failure thus far to record much in the way of
tangible results, beyond more forward-looking and liberal
rhetoric, leads to popular suspicion. The conventional
wisdom among most non-ruling coalition Chinese and Indians,
for example, seems to be that the ruling party has
orchestrated the "Allah" issue so as to increase support
among Malay voters by fomenting division between Muslims on
one side and Christians or secularists on the other in the
opposition coalition. Few in the opposition credit the
Government with a sincere commitment to freedom of religion
or the rule of law. They may go too far in their distrust of
the Government's motives and they may give the Government too
much credit in its purported ability to organize
conspiracies, but the popular view is widely and deeply held
among non-Malay, non-Muslims that the Government is
antagonistic toward other religions and is engaged in a
long-term effort to expand Islam's primacy in Malaysian
society.

7. (C) Najib's public relations efforts to downplay
differences among the races and religions and promote the
concepts of toleration and moderation notwithstanding, he
appears to have hardened popular views since the advent of
his Administration given the steps hardliners in the ruling
party have forced on their fellow UMNO members. The Kartika
caning case and the cow-head incident (ref D), and a number
of less prominent news events involving constraints on the
practice of religious freedom have firmed up the views of
those already in opposition. It is difficult to say at this
point how this latest controversy will affect the ongoing
priority on the ruling party's part to woo back ethnic Malays
before another general election must be held by 2013. But it
is clear that there are limits as to how far Najib will go to
earn the characterization of Malaysia as a moderate voice in
the Muslim world. We should adjust expectations accordingly,
and we will have to monitor closely the next likely test of
Najib's political will, namely Anwar Ibrahim's January 25
trial.

KEITH

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