Malaysia's ex-leader stays in the game

Former Prime Minister Mahathir's trademark audacity could harm tentative peace mediations in Thailand's restive south.

, Thailand Regional peacemaker or national troublemaker?

Mahathir Mohamad, who put his stamp firmly on Malaysia during two decades in power before retiring in 2003, has always worn several hats: economic modernizer, third-world champion, political schemer. He swaddled ethnic Malays in preferential perks, then scolded them for being lazy. He courted Western capital, while sniping at Western democracies.

But his latest double-act may be the most audacious – and paradoxical.

Since late last year, Dr. Mahathir has been brokering secret talks in Malaysia between Thai military officers and representatives of ethnic Malay insurgents in southern Thailand, paving the way for peace talks aimed at ending nearly three years of violence. At the same time, he has gone on the offensive against his handpicked successor, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, calling him unfit to lead the country.

Thanks in part to Mahathir's statesmanship, Thailand's new military-backed government has agreed to hold further talks in Malaysia, subject to a cease-fire and other preconditions. But Mahathir's brazen bid to undermine Mr. Badawi's leadership has raised doubts over the next step in the tentative peace process. Without the full backing of Malaysia's government, analysts say Mahathir's mediation efforts could fall at the first hurdle.

Badawi has expressed disbelief at what he calls "doses of venom." The row between the two men has opened a damaging rift within the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, where Mahathir still commands loyalty.

"It limits his effectiveness as a voice of the Malaysian government, because he's attacking that government," says Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia specialist at John Hopkins University.

And in a region fraught with communal conflict, Muslim-majority Malaysia is no small voice. It's already the host of negotiations between the Philippines and Muslim rebels on Mindanao island, where its officials are leading an international mission to monitor a 2003 cease-fire. Malaysians are also represented in a monitoring team in Indonesia's tsunami-stricken Aceh province after a 2005 accord ended decades of conflict. That mission is due to end next month after local elections are held in Aceh.

Even without the combustible Mahathir, though, Southern Thailand is a stiffer test of Malaysia's mediating skills. Several groups are blamed for the violence, and exiled leaders may have limited command over local gunmen. Moreover, Thailand has accused Malaysia of harboring militants who cross the porous border between the two countries to evade detection. In turn, Malaysia has chided its Buddhist neighbor for its rough treatment of its Muslim minority in the south.

Since taking office in October, Thailand's new Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a retired Army general, has struck a more conciliatory tone toward the troubled south. On a visit there last week, he apologized to local Muslims for past abuses, including the deaths of nearly 80 men in Army custody after a 2004 protest was brutally suppressed. Charges against a further 58 protesters held since the incident were also dropped.

"I come here today to apologize for what the previous government did. Most of the mistakes that happened were that of the government," Surayud told a Muslim audience in the southern city of Pattani, to loud applause.

The peace talks predated the overthrow of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai premier. Mr. Thaksin's hardball tactics to counter the southern unrest, which has claimed over 1,700 lives, had upset senior figures in the mili- tary and the palace, which embraced Mahathir's offer to open backdoor channels to exiled insurgent leaders.

Behind the withering criticism of Badawi, a soft-spoken Islamic scholar, is a battle over Mahathir's political legacy and party patronage. The spark came in June with the cancellation of one of Mahathir's expensive pet projects: another bridge across the strait to neighboring Singapore.

Seizing on this decision, Mahathir attacked Badawi's economic record, then accused the premier's family of profiting from their proximity to power. This claim resonates among UMNO politicians who feel excluded from the spoils of patronage, as well as ordinary Malaysians seduced by Badawi's "Mr. Clean" image.

Mahathir has also tried to paint Badawi as a weak leader who bends to foreign pressure on trade issues, such as the import tariffs that protect Malaysia's national car company, Proton.

For his part, Badawi has largely held his tongue, allowing his allies to blast Mahathir as a meddler with a personal ax to grind. Mahathir was excluded from an annual UMNO conference this week, amid calls for him to be expelled for his outbursts.

In an open letter published Oct. 27, Mahathir claimed that he was being silenced by the Malaysian media. "No one dares to comment, criticize, or oppose anything that is done by the prime minister," he wrote.

One very recent development alter Mahathir's contentious relationships: He was admitted to hospital in Malaysia early Thursday after suffering a mild heart attack, but doctors now say his condition is stable. Badawi was among his visitors, but Mahathir was sleeping at the time, his son told reporters.

As Malaysian commentators digest the irony of Mahathir – a leader who censored critical reporting and enriched his business allies – decrying Badawi for running a nepotistic "police state," the peace track in southern Thailand appears far from certain. With no sign of a letup in violence, analysts are skeptical that Malaysia can bring the two sides together, consumed as they are by internal politicking.

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