A White House readout of the meeting, which took place as President Obama wrapped up a visit to Malaysia, said she met with the three leaders to “hear their views on the situation in Malaysia and their efforts to press for greater democracy, transparency, and reform.”
Most attention was focused on Anwar Ibrahim, a prominent opposition leader who has been engaged in a lengthy legal battle – politically motivated, says the U.S. and others – with the government over charges of corruption and sodomy.
The statement said Rice had told Anwar that the U.S. “has followed his case closely, and that the decision to prosecute him and the trial have raised a number of concerns regarding the rule of law and the independence of the courts.”
Along with Anwar, who heads the National Justice Party, Rice met with leaders from two other political parties – Lim Guan Eng of the secular, ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), and Mustafa Ali, secretary-general of the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).
The three-party coalition comprises the official opposition in Malaysia’s federal parliament, and they also control one each of Malaysia’s 13 states.
PAS controls Kelantan, a northern state adjoining Thailand which it ruled from 1959–1977, and again from 1990 until the present. It has been trying to introduce shari’a punishments – known as “hudud” – there since the early 1990s, but the move has been blocked by the national government, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s mainstream Malay party, UMNO.
Just this month PAS renewed the hudud campaign, however, announcing plans to table a private member’s bill in parliament in June to amend the constitution, to allow the punishments to be introduced in Kelantan.
The drive has thrown the opposition coalition into an uproar, with warnings that it could split over the issue.
Hudud punishments are the most notorious element of shari’a law. Hudud – literally “limitations imposed by Allah” – include stoning, limb amputation and flogging for adultery and theft, while apostasy, leaving Islam, can also carry the death sentence. They are enforced to varying degrees in countries like Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.
Neither the White House statement nor a statement from the opposition leaders who met with Rice made any reference to the hudud controversy.
“Greatly appreciated hearing candid views of Malaysian opposition leaders including Mr. Anwar,” Rice tweeted after the meeting.
‘You are asking us to do harm’
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country made up of about 61 percent Malay Muslims, with the remainder comprising sizable Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities of mostly Chinese and Indian origin.
In Kelantan, about 95 percent of the inhabitants are Malay Muslims.
While PAS has not yet succeeded in its hudud there, it does impose bans on gambling, dancing and the public consumption of alcohol in Kelantan, and men and women are segregated in supermarket checkout queues and swimming pools.
Although UMNO has long opposed the PAS proposal to impose hudud punishments in Kelantan, Najib last week signaled a shift, saying that the federal government supports efforts to implement hudud, but saying it was vital that Muslims and non-Muslims understand the concept.
(During a joint press conference with Najib in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, Obama described the prime minister as “a reformer.” At a separate event, with university students, he called for religious tolerance in Malaysia, saying “there are times where those who are non-Muslims find themselves perhaps being disadvantaged or experiencing hostility.”)
DAP leader Lim reaffirmed in a statement early this week that his party has long opposed the PAS hudud proposal “because it is unconstitutional.” He also accused Najib of doing a “flip-flop” on the issue.
The return of the hudud issue is making waves in medical circles too. Last week the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) felt compelled to assure its members in Kelantan that if the hudud legislation passes the state government will not be able to force them to amputate the limbs of convicted thieves.
MMA president Dr. N.K.S. Tharmaseelan told a press conference that doctors fell under the federal health ministry and so were not obliged to follow state government orders, the national news agency Bernama reported.
He also reminded doctors that carrying out such amputations would be contrary to medical ethics.
“We are taught to take care, empathize, cure and love,” he said. “But here, you are asking us to do harm.”