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Last Updated:  Friday, 7 March, 2003, 21:43 GMT
Malaysia: Caught in the middle

By Jonathan Kent
BBC correspondent in Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia lies at the heart of South-east Asia, the region described by the United States as the second front in its so-called war on terror.

But it is torn between its economic, cultural and political links with the US, and its status as a champion of the Islamic and developing worlds.

On February 15, 1,500 people protested outside the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur at an opposition anti war demonstration.

Anti-war t-shirts are sold through the office of the Star, a local English newspaper, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Anti-war t-shirts are popular in Malaysia
Police tried to close the protest down.

A week later, 200,000 attended a rally backed by the government, who then challenged the Islamist opposition party PAS to organise a bigger one.

Malaysian politics now looks like a competition to see who can bang the anti-US gong the loudest.

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad led the way.

In Malaysia, especially for the last 20 or 30 years, what other foreign culture have we been exposed to except American culture?
DJ Patrick Teoh
"They now no longer respect borders, international laws or even simple moral values. And they are now talking of wars, of the use of military conquests in order to change governments," he said.

"They are even talking of using nuclear weapons. It is no longer just a war against terrorism, it is in fact a war to dominate the world."

Despite these strong words at last week's Non-aligned Movement summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has been a key ally in the US war on terror.

Last year, both US Secretary of State Colin Powell and President George W Bush asked Malaysia to set up a regional counter-terrorism centre.

Malaysia's Foreign Minister, Syed Hamid Albar, told me that plans were coming along well for the centre: "We have identified the premises and we are going to identify the officials to head it, and we hope we should be able to get it going by this year."

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed
PM Mahathir is critical of US policy

The situation is complicated by domestic politics.

Dr Mahathir's party draws its support from Malay Muslims.

In recent years many have switched to backing PAS.

September 11 temporarily silenced the Islamist opposition, but the government fears war in Iraq could play into their hands.

However, PAS research chief Dr Zulkifli Ahmad says his party is determined not to whip up sentiment and be branded as extremist.

"We are going to rope in the entire support against aggression; Muslims, non-Muslims, the NGOs, the political parties, even the government for that matter, and we are going to take it beyond Islam because this is an aggression against humanity," he said.

All around me in an American burger chain are young Muslim men, one even wearing a Malaysian for Peace t-shirt, and their girlfriends, headscarves drawn tightly about their faces.

It sums up the contradiction here.

A lot of people don't equate Washington with the West any more... they're capable of making a distinction between Washington and ordinary Americans
Chandra Muzaffer, veteran commentator

"In Malaysia, especially for the last 20 or 30 years, what other foreign culture have we been exposed to except American culture?" explained disc jockey Patrick Teoh.

"I am bombarded for 18 hours a day with American television, I am listening to American songs, everywhere I drive I am confronted with the big McDonalds sign and my children want to have McDonalds burgers for lunch," he said.

Outside Kuala Lumpur's Central Market many people, particularly Muslims, are reluctant to say what they think about the US.

Those who will speak however tend to draw a distinction between America, its people and their government.

Dr Chandra Muzaffar, President of the International Movement for A Just World and an observer of Malaysian politics, is not surprised.

"A lot of people don't equate Washington with the West any more... they're capable of making a distinction between Washington and ordinary Americans. This is really beginning to emerge," he said.

"I say this because you see reports of this sort even in the peripheral media, some of which are quite shrill when it comes to Islamic issues, but they're capable of making those distinctions and I think that's very good."

It is the links between the two governments that are likely to suffer most in the event of war.

The threat of military action against Iraq is eroding the sympathy generated by the attacks on New York and Washington.

Even a moderate Muslim country cannot afford to be seen to be too friendly with an America seemingly bent on war in the Middle East.

Malaysia scolds US over Iraq
23 Feb 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Developing world split over Iraq
22 Feb 03 |  Asia-Pacific

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