Malaysia's Mahathir not taking sides on India-Pakistan issues
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has made it clear that his country was not choosing sides in recent tensions between India and Pakistan and said it unequivocally condemned all acts of terrorism. However, while little of significance has occurred in Malaysia’s relations with India after his government declined Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s request to extradite Salafist Indian Muslim preacher Zakir Naik, Mahathir has taken ties with Pakistan to a strategic level, evincing interest in Pakistan-made armaments.
Mahathir’s three-day visit to Pakistan that ended Saturday (March 23, 2019), “illustrated indirectly” that it “did not mean that Malaysia had chosen its side,” The New Straits Times reported. “Malaysia appreciates and will continue to maintain its good relationships with India and Pakistan, “despite both neighbouring South Asian counties being on the verge of a conflict,” the newspaper reported Mahathir as saying to his Pakistani host, Prime Minister Imran Khan.
“We cannot side with anyone. I think this, allowing terrorists to have this upper hand, is very dangerous,” he said, but appeared to view things evenly between India and Pakistan, saying, “We must stop terrorists, both sides (India and Pakistan) must prevent acts of terrorism. When terrorists fight, they just want to take revenge.”
“They cannot conquer. What can they do?…kill people. Is that what humanity is fated for? We don’t want to take sides with anyone” Mahathir said at a press conference at Nur Air Base in Rawalpindi.
As a country with close relations with both Pakistan and India, Malaysia had on February 28 said it was “encouraging both countries to exercise maximum restraint and re-engage in dialogue and negotiations.” In a statement issued after Pakistan’s military shot down an Indian jet in airspace over Kashmir on February 27, it said tensions between India and Pakistan was “a matter of great concern for Malaysia.”
Mahathir was the chief guest at Pakistan’s Army Day and, during the much-hyped visit, was conferred its highest civilian honour, Nishan-e-Pakistan.
His visit was business-like, with deals worth USD 900 million being signed. Malaysia reportedly ‘showed interest’ in the JF-17 (NATO code name Thunder), the combat jet Pakistan has co-produced with China, with Mahathir taking a look at the aircraft’s cockpit.
After the visit, Pakistan’s Finance Minister Asad Umar said Pakistan would provide anti-tank missiles to Malaysia.
“There are many fields for cooperation between Malaysia and Pakistan, but before this, we did not know their capabilities and they did not know of our capabilities. Only when we are here, we can see their strengths,” Mahathir said.
After Mahathir presented Khan a Proton car, it was announced that the Malaysian car-maker would set up an assembly line in Karachi.
However, there was no word to confirm reports that Malaysia might extend loans to help Pakistan tide over its serious economic crisis. While Saudi Arabia and the UAE have lent money, Pakistan’s talks to get a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) remain in trouble.
“Both leaders agreed that the existing relations between Pakistan-Malaysia be elevated to a strategic partnership. It marked a new level of the bilateral cooperation between both countries in various fields, namely trade in palm oil, agricultural products, food retail, halal products, automotive parts, energy, science and technology, and telecommunication investment,” said a joint statement issued at the end of the visit.
Both Pakistan and Malaysia are leading members of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) where the former pushes the Kashmir issue to snipe at India. It figured in the joint statement issued after Khan’s visit to Malaysia last November. Khan had claimed in Kuala Lumpur that the human rights situation in Kashmir was “grave” but the mention of Kashmir in the joint statement—presumably with Malaysian consent— raised eyebrows in New Delhi.
But it may not be surprising for India since Mahathir has a decades-old image of being a hardliner on such issues. Malaysia was known to needle India on the Kashmir issue in the 1990s. But Kuala Lumpur got a dose of its own medicine and was seen to back down subsequently after it felt the heat following a massive controversy over the treatment of its own ethnic Tamil minority.
The differing perceptions have played out in Malaysia, an Islamic nation that prides itself in its multi-racial and multi-ethnic polity. There are over two million ethnic Indians, forming seven percent of Malaysia’s population. The number of Pakistanis is a little less than 60,000.
Ostensibly responding to Pakistan’s emphasis on the Muslim nations, Mahathir, said “the over-reliance of Islamic countries on the developed nations has caused them to be afraid to protest against any wrongful actions by Western countries.”
Mahathir and Khan agreed on Islamophobia, especially in the Western world and stressed that terrorism cannot be associated with any religion or belief.
“Pakistan and Malaysia both understand the need to find ways to combat Islamophobia. We must work to improve the perception of Muslims in the world. We must change the prevailing atmosphere of fear,” said Mahathir.
Mahathir who returned to power in May last year, had been Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, for 22 years, till 2003. He was known to advocate a moderate form of Islam for Southeast Asia. Eulogizing Mahathir as “a mass leader with no hype,” Pakistan Today commented: “While Prime Minister Imran Khan complained that only a few Muslim leaders take stands on issues that affect the Muslim world, what concerned Mahathir more was that no Muslim country had yet joined the category of developed nations, including Malaysia.”