One has to look to Dr Mahathir Mohamad, former prime minister of Malaysia, for a slap to the Americans once in a while. Many have dismissed him as suffering from “former president syndrome”: ex-rulers indulge in rhetoric and tell others what they themselves should do were they still in power. But in the case of Mahathir, one thing many of his enemies and friends agree on is that the man has a lot of stamina for putting up a good fight.
Since retiring in October 2003 and finding himself under pressure to keep his promise not to get involved in Malaysia’s domestic political scene, Mahathir has been spearheading a campaign to ‘criminalise war’, with a focus on the US occupation of Iraq. Critics argue that the movement sounds as funny as someone trying to ban murder, but, as funny though the phrase sounds, many have admired Mahathir’s energy at the ripe age of 82.
Mahathir, who has been at odds with the government of Abdullah Badawi over various policies, appears to have won some backing from the government for a “war crimes tribunal” in Kuala Lumpur at the end of an international conference-cum exhibition on war crimes from February 5 to 11, to try those who have committed crimes in Lebanon,Palestine and Iraq. In one of his speeches at the conference, Mahathir applauded Iraqi fighters (“insurgents” in the media’s parlance), urging them to ensure the Americans pay a “high price” for their invasion of Iraq and saying that the flow of body-bags would “help Americans to change their minds” about the conflict. Unlike other statesmen, Mahathir pulled no punches when he called Bush and Blair “child killers” and “war criminals”. When questioned, the Malaysian government brushed aside suggestions that the comments would mar its relations with Washington. “I think [Mahathir] has taken that approach and I would not say that the government supports nor objects to it,” said foreign minister Syed Hamid Akbar.
The war crimes tribunal, as Mahathir said in his speech, will be more than academic, with the real intention to make sure the “international community” gets the message that George Bush and Tony Blair should not get off scot-free after what they have done in Iraq. “We should not hang Blair if the tribunal finds him guilty, but he should always carry the label ‘war criminal’, ‘killer of children’, ‘liar’,” he said in his keynote address.
The pro-America lobby, represented by some NGOs in Southeast Asia, were quick to dismiss the whole thing as a charade, but even Mahathir’s former critics in the opposition could not disagree with him on this matter. Their only complaint was that actions at home, such as the arbitrary powers of the government to detain anyone deemed to be a threat to national security under the Internal Security Act, which provides for detention without trial, and which subjects detainees to torture, should also be put to check by those talking about torture in Guantanamo. This prompted several opposition activists to distribute leaflets informing the public that the kind of torture condemned by Mahathir’s organisation is also practised on local political detainees. A number of detainees, accused of ties with al-Qa’ida and the mythical Jemaah Islamiyyah, are still waiting to be released by Abdullah Badawi’s government.
Yet another lot of critics has been acting as spokesmen for the pro-American lobby in the region, which appears to have been dealt a blow by the large crowds of people who turned out to see the evidence of the torture and abuse inflicted by Americans throughout modern history, as well as an excellent pictorial exhibition, using the latest technology, to illustrate Israeli and American crimes in Lebanon, Palestine, Japan and other parts of the world. These critics include people whose NGOs are funded by Western organisations. Their complaint is that Mahathir has ignored the genocide in East Timor, the junta in Burma, Pinochet in Argentinaand Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe – the usual selective concerns of the western media. They even expressed worry that Mahathir’s condemnation of the West will scare away investors and decrease his chances of getting this year’s Nobel peace prize, for which he has recently been nominated by Bosnian civil groups.
The conference was attended by activists from all over the world. Among them are Ibrahim Mousawi, editor-in-chief of al-Manar Television in Lebanon; Dirk Adrieansens, an executive member of the Brussels War Crimes Tribunal; Michael Carmichael, founder of the Oxford Centre for Public Affairs; Professor Michel Chossudovsky from the University of Ottawa, who is an author and activist on global militarisation; and US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinny. The conference was also attended by some 17 Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese victims of war. A gripping account of torture was told by Ali Shalal Qaissi, an Iraqi lecturer who became famous as the “man in the hood”, photographs of whom were released after the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison became public.
Alongside the conference, an exhibition on war crimes – the first of its kind in the world – was held in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. It boasts realistic re-enactments of the horrors of war and real-life stories of deformed babies, retold by wax figures. Against a blood-splattered background are ‘bodies’ in bags in rubble, much like in towns and cities in Iraq. The cries of torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib made it more chilling. In short, visitors could not leave without being shaken and angry. Tens of thousands of people thronged the venue, despite reports of the event being carefully kept in the inner pages of major newspapers.
World news organisations such as CNN, BBC and even al-Jazeera, which maintains its regional headquarters a stone’s throw away from the venue of the exhibition and conference, did not bother even to mention the event, which is easily the biggest anti-war conference-cum-exhibition ever in this part of the world. The silence of the world’s media about an international event in a capital city brings back memories of the Russell Tribunal initiated by British philosopher Bertrand Russell. The Russell tribunal was a public international body to try America for its crimes in Vietnam, but it was ignored by the US.
We know the media is owned and controlled by warmongers. The majority of them would support wars, would invent excuses for wars, would lie to encourage wars. They would ignore this conference and exhibition or would lie about what we are doing
Dr Mahathir expected the same at the start of the conference: “We know the media is owned and controlled by warmongers. The majority of them would support wars, would invent excuses for wars, would lie to encourage wars. They would ignore this conference and exhibition or would lie about what we are doing,” he told the crowd that packed the World Trade Centre hall inKuala Lumpur.
Despite this, Mahathir’s various contacts are attracting prominent anti-war activists from the US and Europe, as well as educating the public about the crimes being perpetrated by the US around the world; the costs of the venture are being regarded as money well spent. As Gwynne Dyer, a journalist and Oscar-nominated documentary-maker, put it when asked by a reporter whether he agreed that Mahathir had the moral authority to organise the conference: “Nobody comes to this with clean hands, and if you wait until you have perfect people to do it you’re not going to get it done, are you?”