The top White House national security aide Susan Rice will meet Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim when President Barack Obama’s regional tour reaches Malaysia, a senior US official told AFP Thursday.
Obama is set to arrive in the Malaysian capital on Saturday in what will be the first visit to the country by a sitting US president in nearly half a century.
He faces a political balancing act: he will be keen not to alienate his hosts and a key Southeast Asian ally but Washington has made clear its disquiet about the revival of long term charges against Anwar and is concerned at what it sees as a deteriorating political situation.
Anwar, who was convicted of sodomy in March and whose opposition is engaged in a fierce political battle with Malaysia’s longtime government, had been told that Obama would not be able to see him personally.
But the decision to make national security advisor Rice available will send a clear signal, as she is the most senior foreign policy official other than the president on Obama’s four nation Asian tour.
Anwar told AFP earlier this week that he was not upset he would not get time with Obama but added that such an encounter would have been “consistent with US democratic ideals and its foreign policy of promoting freedom and justice”.
Washington has expressed disquiet about what it says are politically motivated charges to keep the veteran opposition leader out of Malaysian politics.
In March, a Malaysian Court of Appeal overturned Anwar’s 2012 acquittal on sodomy charges, finding him guilty of having had sex with a former male aide in 2008 and sentencing him to five years in jail.
Anwar remains free pending an appeal to Malaysia’s highest court. A former deputy premier with the ruling coalition, Anwar has cultivated strong friendships in Washington, where he is lauded for his calls for reform.
The 66-year-old said there was “opposition from the Malaysian government” against him meeting Obama.
Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition has ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957.
In elections last year, an Anwar-led opposition won the popular vote for the first time, but Barisan Nasional retained control of parliament due to what critics say is gerrymandering.
An annual report by the US-based academic study Electoral Integrity Project published in February ranked Malaysia’s elections 66th out of 73 for democratic integrity. -AFP