SEVERAL YEARS ago it appeared that Malaysia, which has been ruled by the same party since it achieved independence in 1957, might be on the verge of a soft transition to democracy. Prime Minister Najib Razak promised to dismantle preferences favoring ethnic Malays, reduce police powers, repeal a repressive anti-sedition law and promote free and fair elections. He mostly stayed on course until 2013, when opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim led a multiethnic coalition to a popular-vote victory in national elections. The ruling United Malays National Organization clung to power only because of the gerrymandering of parliamentary seats.
Mr. Najib has since launched a campaign aimed at crippling the opposition — a crackdown that reached its peak Tuesday with the sentencing of Mr. Anwar to five years in prison. It was a major regression for a country that values its strategic partnership with the United States, and it was the continuation of a bad trend in Southeast Asia, following the military coup that toppled Thailand’s democratic government last year.
The criminal case used to imprison Mr. Anwar, who has been one of the foremost advocates of liberal democracy in the Muslim world, was as morally reprehensible as it was farcical. The opposition leader was charged with sodomy, which is still illegal in Malaysia but is rarely prosecuted. The 67-year-old married grandfather denied the charge, and the case against him was thin enough to be dismissed by a court in 2012. That Mr. Najib’s government managed to have that decision reversed by an appeals court and upheld by the Supreme Court demonstrated only that Malaysia still lacks an independent judiciary.
Mr. Najib has not limited his repression to Mr. Anwar. In recent months, dozens of activists have been charged under the same anti-sedition law that the prime minister promised to repeal. On Tuesday, police detained a famous cartoonist and announced that they were investigating two opposition members of Parliament because of tweets protesting Mr. Anwar’s conviction.
At the United Nations in September, President Obama decried such “relentless crackdowns” and promised “an even stronger campaign to defend democracy.” Sadly, the administration’s response to the Anwar conviction suggests the opposite. While saying that the United States was “deeply disappointed ” by the verdict and that it raised “serious concerns about rule of law,” a White House statement undercut those sentiments by affirming that “we remain committed to expanding our cooperation on shared economic and security challenges” with Malaysia.
Mr. Najib, who was invited to play golf with Mr. Obama in December, is unlikely to take the president’s “campaign to defend democracy” seriously unless it consists of more than such carefully balanced statements. One way to send a message would be to withhold the invitation to visit Washington that the prime minister is hoping for this year. A leader who has just jailed his main opponent should not be received at the White House.