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Malaysian Ruling Party Annual Congress Convenes - 2002-06-20

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has opened the ruling party's annual congress - addressing the contentious issues of Islamic law and fighting terrorism. The congress comes amid growing debate of the role of Islam and ethnicity in Malaysian society.

Prime Minister Mahathir Thursday opened the annual congress of the United Malay National Union party, UMNO, warning that Israel's harsh tactics against the Palestinians will not work and that those who support Israel will continue to be the target of terrorists.

But the Malaysian leader also noted the image of Muslim countries has been damaged by the terrorist attacks of September 11th - even though this is not fair to the majority of Muslims who are peaceful and law abiding.

Mr. Mahathir used this foreign policy issue as a jumping off point to address issues facing Malaysia's predominantly Muslim population. One of the biggest debates between UMNO and the opposition PAS party is whether Malaysia should begin to adopt a criminal code based on strict Islamic laws.

Constitutionally, Malaysia is a Muslim country - but with a secular government that guarantees freedom of religious worship. But the Islamist PAS Party wants to change that.

Mr. Mahathir says such a move is unnecessary, adding, "No change needs to be made in the constitution of Malaysia to make it an Islamic country. It is already an Islamic country. What needs to be done is to ensure that this country is not deviated by certain parties for their own political interests."

PAS seeks to institute Islamic law in two northern states where it controls local government. A scholar of Malaysian politics, William Case of Australia's Griffith University, says this presents a problem for the Mahathir government. "The real flash point at the moment is whether the PAS-controlled government of the state of Terenganu is going to be allowed to [impose Sharia, or Islamic law]," he says, "or what the UMNO might do to respond and prevent that from happening."

UMNO, which has ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957, saw its popularity slip in the 1999 elections. Mr. Mahathir appeared to have alienated some Muslim Malays when he fired and jailed his popular deputy Anwar Ibrahim. The introduction of Islamic law could be a key ballot issue in the next elections.

Another hurdle facing UMNO is charges - from human rights groups - that the ruling coalition has misused power and restricted the activities of political opponents. Activists say the controversial Internal Security Act, that allows the government to detain suspects indefinitely without trial, has been used to silence political dissent.

"The Internal Security Act is restrictive of public involvement in the public decision making, which is related to the right of democracy," says Pablo Christalo who is with the Bangkok civic group, Asia Forum.

While the Internal Security Act has been unpopular with many, analyst William Case says opposition to the law has declined following revelations that al-Qaida linked terrorists have been active in Malaysia. "Concerns over democracy and human rights and these kinds of issues have probably receded in the background," he says. "There's more concern now about terrorist threats within the country, which is an issue that the government has greatly exploited, greatly played up, and probably overstated."

As a result, it appears Mr. Mahathir's party is stronger than it has been in several years. Although the 76-year-old leader has hinted at retiring after decades in office, Mr. Case says he does not believe he is likely to step down soon.

"There doesn't seem to be much pressure for change at the moment," Mr. Case says. "Mahathir's a far more popular figure today than he had been two years ago. So succession just probably won't come up and I expect he will probably be leading the party in the next general election, which could come as early as next year."

In anticipation, Mr. Mahathir has, in recent weeks, raised the issue of the long-standing policy of giving Malays preferential treatment in jobs and education. It is not clear how well this will go over with majority Malays. But the suggestion may be designed to attract support with the country's ethnic Chinese and Indians.