Malaysia’s upcoming elections could cost Myanmar’s NUG one of its biggest allies

Saifuddin Abdullah, a supporter of democrats ousted in the coup, is unlikely to remain Malaysia’s foreign minister.
By Iman Muttaqin Yusof for BenarNews
2022.10.14
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Malaysia’s upcoming elections could cost Myanmar’s NUG one of its biggest allies Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (left) with Csaba Kőrösi, president of the 77th United Nations General Assembly, in New York, Sept.27, 2022.
Malaysian Foreign Minister’s Office

Malaysia's upcoming election could cost the Myanmar shadow government one of its biggest allies – Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah.

Following Myanmar’s military coup in Feb. 2021, Saifuddin was the first ASEAN foreign minister to contact the parallel, civilian National Unity Government (NUG), publicly meet with the NUG foreign minister and push for the regional bloc to actively engage with it.

But with most analysts giving Saifuddin's party little chance of winning the next election, the question is whether a new Malaysian government would be as active in engaging the Burmese politicians ousted in the coup.

Saifuddin has been actively pushing for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members to engage with other stakeholders and to find better solutions to the post-coup crisis in Myanmar, said Thomas Benjamin Daniel, Foreign Policy senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

“He is a progressive minister who supports humanitarian and democratic objectives and has been very vocal in holding the junta accountable for its actions,” Daniel told BenarNews.

“We could see a more muted Malaysia if Saifuddin is no longer foreign minister.”

Since becoming foreign minister in August 2021, Saifuddin has emerged as the Southeast Asian diplomat most actively trying to resolve the crisis, Daniel said.

Through his diplomacy, Malaysia in April became the first member-state of the regional bloc to officially contact Myanmar’s NUG, which many consider to be the legitimate government in exile. A month later, he had his first in-person meeting with Zin Mar Aung, his counterpart from the NUG, in Washington, D.C., after the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit.

Saifuddin was also the first ASEAN foreign minister to broach the idea of scrapping a five-point consensus the regional bloc made with Myanmar, a kind of roadmap to return that country to democracy, because the junta has done nothing to implement the accord.

“Until today, there has been no real progress on the 5PC [five-point consensus]. The violence continues, and in fact [has] gotten worse. … It shows the junta is making a mockery of the 5PC,” Saifuddin wrote on Facebook in July.

And last month in New York, Saifuddin said that Kuala Lumpur planned to press ASEAN into deciding the fate of its five-point consensus on Myanmar before the regional bloc’s summit Nov. 8-13 summit in Phnom Penh.

“Between now and November ASEAN must seriously review if the 5-point consensus is still relevant and decide if it is still relevant,” Saifuddin told reporters after meeting with Burmese opposition members on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly proceedings.

“By the time we meet in November, we must ask hard questions and have an answer."

Now, however, Saifuddin won’t be attending the ASEAN summit, his press aide told BenarNews on Thursday.

That’s because after Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced elections on Oct. 10, his government became a caretaker government and his ministers caretaker ministers, until the polls.

‘Each minister has their own style’

Daniel of ISIS Malaysia said it is uncertain whether Saifuddin Abdullah would continue to serve in the cabinet or as a member of parliament in the next government.

Saifuddin belongs to the Bersatu party, which is headed by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, the man widely seen as the “turncoat” who brought down the Pakatan Harapan government Malaysians voted for in the 2018 election.

Political analyst Oh Ei Sun of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs believes this will have turned many voters against them.

“It would be an uphill struggle for them to retain their seats,” Oh told BenarNews.

“Betraying the popular mandate is a cardinal sin for those educated voters.”

Additionally, said analyst Jeniri Amir, Bersatu does not have much grassroots support.

“Bersatu in general is a weak party. If we look at the party grassroots, they will definitely lose in the next general elections,” Jeniri, a senior fellow at the Malaysian Council of Professors, told BenarNews.

“Saifuddin will most likely not be part of the new government even if he wins his seat.”

Would a new Malaysian foreign minister continue Saifuddin’s approach and retain contact with Myanmar’s NUG?

One former foreign minister thinks yes.

“This policy will continue although the way it is presented will be different,” said ex-top diplomat Syed Hamid Albar.

“Of course, in the management of foreign policy, each minister has their own style.”

BenarNews is an RFA affiliated news service.

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