Also, Obama’s itinerary includes a meeting with “Malaysian civil society leaders,” but according to the White House he will not meet with Anwar Ibrahim, the veteran opposition leader who since the late 1990s has been embroiled in a legal battle with the government widely viewed as a politically motivated harassment campaign.
Those scheduling decisions suggest that the administration does not intend the trip – the first presidential visit since President Lyndon Johnson’s in 1966 – to draw attention to controversial issues in a country which Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes in a briefing Monday described as “an emerging partner of the United States.”
Rhodes said it would be “an important visit for the president, and I think one that can really elevate U.S.-Malaysian relations to a new stage.”
The Southeast Asian Muslim nation is one of a dozen countries negotiating a Trans Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement, a key priority for the Obama administration.
Obama arrives in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday as part of an Asia tour that also takes him to Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.
His itinerary in Malaysia includes a state dinner on Saturday, a visit to the National Mosque on Sunday, a working meeting with Prime Minister Najib Razak, a town hall event and speech at Malaya University, and the interaction with civil society leaders.
During a trip briefing at the White House on Friday, national security advisor Susan Rice was asked whether Obama would see Anwar, but replied, “I think that the president is not likely to have that meeting, although there may be other engagements at other levels.”
Just last month Anwar was back in international headlines when an appeals court overturned a 2012 acquittal on sodomy charges, sentencing him to five years’ imprisonment. He remains free pending appeal to the country’s highest court, but the ruling has, once again, threatened his political ambitions.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reaffirmed on March 7 that the U.S. continues to regard Anwar’s prosecution as politically-motivated, and said that it “raised a number of concerns regarding the rule of law and the independence of the courts.”
(Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, claimed during his original trials in 1999 and 2000 that sodomy and corruption charges were part of a plot by associates of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to prevent him from becoming prime minister and exposing high-level corruption. He was given a 15-year jail term and the Clinton administration called him a “political prisoner.”)
Anwar told the French AFP news agency on Monday that although he was not disappointed that he would not meet with Obama, a meeting would have been “consistent with U.S. democratic ideals and its foreign policy of promoting freedom and justice.”
Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for Southeast Asia Joshua Kurlantzick wrote on the CFR’s blog this month that it appears Obama “will add to the Malaysian government’s self-promotion that Kuala Lumpur is a successful and democratic nation, an example of other Muslim-majority countries, and a force for moderation in the world.”
“This approach to the Malaysia visit would mean downplaying – or simply not even discussing – serious regression in Malaysia’s domestic politics,” he wrote, citing the Anwar case, flawed national elections last year, corruption and a crackdown on the government’s opponents.
While relations with the U.S. had improved under Najib, Kurlantzick said, “ignoring the disastrous Najib policies on human rights, political freedoms, and economic liberalization would not be a wise move by Obama.”
Rights abuses, religious freedom violations
The State Department’s evaluation of Malaysia’s human rights record identified problem areas including abuses by security forces and restrictions of freedom of the press, speech, assembly, association and religion.
Malaysia has a Muslim majority of some 61 percent, with minorities including Buddhists (almost 20 percent), Christians (9 percent) and Hindus (6 percent.) Concerns highlighted in the State Department’s latest annual religious freedom report include:
--Denial of legal status to some religious groups
--Restrictions on proselytizing and on the freedom to change one’s religion (except that members of other religions may convert to Islam)
--Marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims are not recognized by the state and children born of such marriages are considered illegitimate
--While Islamic religious instruction is compulsory for Muslim children in public schools, non-Muslim students are not allowed to take classes in their religion, but instead must take non-religious morals and ethics courses.
--The government prohibits publications, public events and debates which it says may incite racial or religious disharmony, including public discussions of issues such as religious freedom and apostasy.
The most controversial religious freedom issue in recent years has been a dispute over whether Malay-language Christian publications can use the word “Allah” in referring to God.
The government worries that this will “confuse” Muslims, but the Catholic Church has argued that it had used the word for God in the country for more than four centuries.
A Catholic publication in 2009 risked losing its publication permit over the dispute, but it won a court ruling in its favor, and was allowed to continue to use the word “Allah” in its Malay-language edition. But that was overturned on appeal late last year, with a panel of judges arguing that “such usage, if allowed, would inevitably cause confusion within the community.”
Since then Bibles have been seized in parts of the country for flouting the prohibition.