Obama to raise rights issues with Malaysia PM

Dan Martin
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Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (L) and US President Barack Obama hold a meeting at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center prior to the start of the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur on November 20, 2015

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (L) and US President Barack Obama hold a meeting at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center prior to the start of the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur on November 20, 2015 (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

Kuala Lumpur (AFP) - US President Barack Obama said he would raise democracy and free-speech concerns with Malaysia's leader Friday as he seeks to strike a balance with a country Washington is courting as a regional ally.

Obama arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Friday afternoon for a weekend summit of Asia-Pacific leaders, and was to meet in the evening with Prime Minister Najib Razak, the gathering's host.

Najib is widely accused of cracking down on opponents and free expression since an election setback in 2013, which critics say has accelerated following the eruption this year of a corruption scandal linked to him.

Asked at a US-sponsored forum for young Southeast Asian leaders in Kuala Lumpur whether he would raise such concerns with Najib, Obama said he "definitely" would.

He added that, nations succeed when "the press is able to report on what is happening in current affairs, and people can organise politically, peacefully, to try to bring about change, and that there is transparency and accountability".

Obama has touted Malaysia as an important partner as Washington seeks to shore up regional alliances amid worries over China's rise, and as a party to the US-led 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.

The pair even bonded privately as golf buddies last December in Hawaii.

But actions by Najib and his government have brought the relationship under the microscope, and triggered accusations that Washington was putting geopolitics ahead of core US democratic principles.

- 'Very candid' -

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said on Thursday that Obama intended to be "very candid" about US concerns when the two men meet.

It was revealed in July that nearly $700 million in mysterious deposits were made to Najib's personal bank accounts, which followed earlier accusations that huge sums were missing from a state company he launched.

Najib denies wrongdoing but has stayed silent on the source and purpose of the money, while clamping down on critics over the affair including firing Malaysia's attorney general and his own deputy premier.

The government has also placed pressure on the anti-corruption agency investigating the matter, and detained whistle-blowers or threatened them with various charges.

Domestic investigations appear to be stalled, but financial regulators in other countries including the US have reportedly launched probes.

Opposition leader Wan Azizah Ismail said on Thursday that Malaysia was becoming an "intolerant autocracy" under Najib, urging Obama to use US leverage to push for reform.

"Obama must not allow trade interests to undermine our inalienable struggle for justice and basic rights," she said.

John Malott, a former US ambassador to Malaysia, said Obama is "on a tightrope" over his Malaysia ties, amid pressure back in Washington.

"He is going to have to distance himself somewhat because Najib is tainted goods, but he still needs to maintain relations" due to Washington's policy goals, Malott said.

"This gives a chance for him to raise human rights, and the Anwar case."

Wan Azizah only became opposition leader when she was tapped to replace her husband Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed in February on a charge that he sodomised a former male aide.

Anwar has called the case a government conspiracy to cripple the opposition, and the US State Department has said it raised questions over rule of law and judicial independence.

Earlier in November, his family released a report by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that said Anwar, 68, was jailed for political reasons and urging his immediate release.

Najib's government has rejected the group's conclusions.