Taken from Rappler.com
This week Malaysia was upgraded from Tier 3 to ensure that this Southeast Asian country could be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This upgrade not only comes after the May revelations of camps where men and women were raped, butchered and killed with the connivance of government officials, but at a time when Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak is looking for external legitimacy to shore up his position at home.
Newspaper reports revealed $700 million of funds from public funds were deposited into his personal bank account. This is part of a series of scandals surrounding Najib and his family. The government’s response has been to close down investigations and media outlets that dare to report the allegations. Obama was happy to give his golfing buddy Najib another political endorsement if it can deliver what his administration desperately needs – a marker to show that its policy in Southeast Asia has made any meaningful achievements.
What Obama does not realize is that this decision has wrecked damage well beyond his remaining time in office. The “Malaysia trade upgrade” deal has seriously undermined US credibility on issues of human trafficking in Southeast Asia.
To give Malaysia an upgrade – while neighboring Thailand who is not in the trade negotiations and has been more active in its response to the reported death camps remains in Tier 3 – illustrates the political hypocrisy involved in the human trafficking assessments. The Trafficking in Persons (TIP) reports – widely seen as an important tool in promoting human rights since they were established by Congress in 2000 – are now seen as bartering chips in trade negotiations rather than credible assessments. Every single report can now be rightly questioned and in effect dismissed.
While some may argue that making the TIP reports meaningless is a measure to undermine the most significant human rights legacy of the Bush administration, the decision shows how devoid the Obama administration has been over issues of human rights in Asia.
As in the Middle East, the Obama administration was silent when the military took power in Thailand. Across the region from the Maldives eastwards, the Obama administration has turned a blind eye to the arrests and charging of opposition figures, attacks on activists, threats on religious freedom and manipulation of elections. This lack of principles has seriously undercut human rights, leaving a legacy of greater authoritarianism and abuses in Southeast Asia than when Obama assumed office.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than in Malaysia – where the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been jailed, sedition charges on activists and opposition politicians have become the norm and religious extremism including attacks on the Bible and churches been effectively ignored by the Najib government. Along with freedoms, free and fair elections have been undermined. The current 1MDB scandal involves the controversial 2013 election, as funds in Najib’s personal account were supposedly used for vote buying.
Cash to voters was one of the main determining factors in the polls that resulted in a party with only a third of the vote holding the lion share of power. The Obama administration represented then by Ambassador Paul Jones was one of the first countries to endorse the results of election despite irregularities. Jones had accepted an honorary title before the polls from Najib’s home state, creating perceptions that a US official had been bribed for support. Questions of selling out principles for financial gains also surround the “Malaysia trade upgrade.”
The TIP decision has reinforced that the US is for sale, as deals rather than principles are Obama’s priority. This perception will be hard to reverse in the new administration.
As China has extended its hard power in the region with reclamations in the South China Sea – with the ASEAN chair Malaysia offering minimal protests – soft power has not been a US priority.
Views of the US have declined. Support for the United States in Malaysia – already the lowest in Asia – has eroded as Obama has continued to blindly endorse Najib’s leadership. The public impact cannot be dismissed. Malaysia is a young country, and a generation of anti-Americans has been nurtured under Obama’s tenure.
There is a widespread lack of trust of the United States that will not be addressed by a trade deal that most Malaysians oppose. In order for the TPP to be introduced in Malaysia it only needs Cabinet approval. Any TPP deal will be undemocratically imposed on Malaysians without even debate in Parliament. This feeds anger and resentment over the long-term towards the United States. It will make the US and American businesses a target.
They are already a security target as a result of growing religious extremism. Malaysia was a location where the 9/11 attacks were planned. Today, the number of supporters of the Islamic State has grown. Malaysians comprise a special Malay-speaking IS military unit and have been involved in the beheadings and suicide bombings. Security spillovers from the anger toward the US cannot be ignored.
But what now can be ignored is any comment the US makes about the Rohingyas. In Myanmar where progress toward democracy has been touted, one of the most serious concerns has been how the Rohingyas have been treated.
With the Malaysia TIP upgrade the Obama administration has revealed how they minimally value Rohingya lives. If the Obama administration genuinely cared about Rohingyas they would not have sold out their deaths for a trade deal. The Myanmar and other regional governments dealing with the serious migrant crisis resulting from the exodus of Rohingya can rightly dismiss all US criticism as hypocrisy.
Obama has tainted the TPP deal with the blood of Rohingyas. He has compromised decency and democracy for deal-making, selling out US credibility and long-term interests in Southeast Asia.