KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The deep fissures in Malaysia’s political system are forcing President Obama to spell out the least-defined aspect of his Asia outreach strategy — how much the United States will use its renewed focus on the region to press for democratic reforms and protections for human rights.
Although Obama tackled the issue of democracy in Asia during a historic visit to Burma in November 2012, it has faded in prominence when compared with economic engagement and security cooperation. But the issue remains a critical part of the administration’s engagement with Southeast Asia, in part because several emerging nations are wrestling with how to transition to democracy now that they have advanced economically.
For Southeast Asian countries with relatively young populations compared with Northeast Asia’s heavyweights — Japan, China and South Korea — that is particularly important.
Now, as he works to foster ties to Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation that has traditionally been closer to China than the United States, Obama must balance his desire to praise Prime Minister Najib Razak with the recognition that his government has used the legal system to sideline its political allies and limit free expression in the media.
“What do we want from the president? To see Malaysia for what it is,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, an electoral reform advocate who will meet with Obama on Sunday evening, in an interview. “If they are glowing about our democracy and moderation, they are undermining the work that we do and encouraging them to carry on with this oppressive conduct.”
Obama’s aides have touted Sunday’s session with members of civil society — which will include 10 activists and is scheduled to last 15 minutes — as an example of how the president will use his visit to promote American values.
“Of course, we’ve had some concerns at times over restrictions on civil society,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters aboard Air Force One on Friday, “so he’ll have an opportunity to not just speak to that but also to hear from some of these individual leaders.”
But many Malaysians have wondered why the president will not meet with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was recently convicted for the second time in his political career under Malaysia’s colonial-era sodomy law. National security adviser Susan E. Rice will meet with him instead.
Rhodes defended the administration’s decision to have Rice meet with Anwar rather than the president, saying Saturday that Obama “doesn’t frequently meet with opposition leaders when he visits other countries.” But Rhodes said that by the end of the state visit, “I don’t think there will be any question as to where he stands on those issues.”
“We support deepening of democratic practices in Malaysia,” he said, adding that Obama will raise the issue in his public remarks and likely in his bilateral meeting with Najib. “And we’ve been concerned when we’ve seen any restrictions on political space or any effort to limit the activities of civil society.”
This week, Najib dismissed his opponents’ accusation that he had lobbied the president against seeing Anwar, referring to Obama as a “superpower.” He is “the president of the United States. We are just a small country,” Najib told reporters.
Wilson Center senior scholar Marvin Ott said the issue of human rights and democracy in Asia hasn’t received “the kind of public visibility recently” as other parts of the administration’s foreign policy in part because U.S. allies don’t appreciate being told “that they know what a real democratic standard is and they know that they are not really measuring up to that.”
“So every time America talks about that, we tend to irritate people,” Ott said. “And I don’t think the White House wants to irritate anybody on this trip.”
Instead, the administration’s cultural outreach to Asia has focused mainly on fostering “people-to-people” relationships, whether through student exchanges or through events with young leaders during the president’s travels. In Tokyo on Thursday, Obama addressed a group of students in a science and technology museum and announced an initiative to bring more Japanese students to study to the United States. On Sunday, he will hold a town hall in Kuala Lumpur with young leaders from 10 Southeast Asian countries.
Rhodes said the youth summit “allows us to focus on areas like civil society, entrepreneurship, public service, where we believe young people will ultimately determine the future of this region, given that there’s such a big youth bulge.”
In an interview Saturday with the Malaysian government newspaper the Star, Obama couched the importance of free expression in diplomatic terms.
“Even as we deepen our cooperation with the Malaysian government, we’re looking to expand our engagement with the Malaysian people — including the civil society groups and young people who are vital to the future of this country and the region,” he said. “Around the world, we’ve seen that countries that welcome the contributions, and uphold the human rights, of all their citizens regardless of their political affiliation, ethnicity, race or religion are ultimately more prosperous and more successful.”
But several Malaysian activists and some academic experts said the administration had to do more to push the ruling regime, which has held power since 1957. Andrew Khoo, co-chair of the Malaysia Bar Council’s human rights committee, noted that when Najib was reelected in May 2013, the White House issued a statement saying it looked “forward to continuing its close cooperation with the government and the people of Malaysia to continue to strengthen democracy, peace, and prosperity in the region,” even though it noted that there had been voting irregularities and believed “it is important that Malaysian authorities address concerns that have been raised.”
“No investigations took place. All legal challenges to the elections were dismissed on technical grounds,” Khoo wrote in an e-mail. “Question: how exactly has the U.S. strengthened democracy and peace in Malaysia?”
In the Philippines, where President Benigno Aquino III has won plaudits for curbing corruption, a slew of extrajudicial killings carried out by military and insurgent groups have alarmed human rights activists. Twelve journalists were killed in 2013; the Philippines ranks as the second-most dangerous country in the world for reporters, after Iraq.
And even the reforms underway in Burma, which Rhodes identified in an interview earlier this month as “the most fruitful aspect” of the administration’s values outreach in Asia, have run into trouble. Less than two weeks ago, Daniel Russel, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, visited Rangoon and warned President Thein Sein and other officials that recent attacks on minority Muslims and foreign aid groups could undermine the government’s relationship with the United States.
Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center, said that in the case of Burma, “expectations outstripped possibilities way too quickly.” Obama now faces the task of trying to “walk the line” between building closer ties to countries in Southeast Asia and holding them accountable so they can make “a transition from rapid modernization to something more capable,” he said.
“It’s one thing to say the United States is trying to underscore its commitment to the region,” Pollack said. “But it can’t be based simply on acquiescence to whatever we see and have to contend with in the region.”
Or as Singapore Management University political science professor Bridget Welsh put it, “These issues of human rights are connected to issues of governance. You can’t have engagement on economics and security without some basic parameters of good governance.”
David Nakamura contributed to this report.