Tag Archives: Malaysia

United We Stand: Mahathir’s Resignation

At one o’clock local time on the 24th of February, Malaysia’s 95-year-old Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, shocked the world by announcing his resignation. The two-time Prime Minister is the single most powerful post-independence political figure in Malaysian history, and his resignation has thrown the country’s political future into turmoil as all sides struggle to react to the news.

Not only was Mahathir Prime Minister from 1998-2003, but he was also a founding member of the United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO); a component of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that led the government from independence in 1957 until it was finally superseded in 2018 by the Pakatan Harapan coalition. Not incidentally, Pakatan is led by Mahathir’s long-time Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who was ousted from UMNO in 1998 after a falling out with Mahathir. Anwar’s subsequent journey through the political wilderness is itself an amazing story of persecution, incarceration, and a determined return to power, which may have something to do with Mahathir’s surprise move yesterday.

Power Play

The drama between Anwar and Mahathir goes back to the then-Deputy Prime Minister’s rising ambitions in the late 1990s. Having risen to prominence partly due to his stringent Islamic politics, Anwar’s increasing popularity among the majority Malay voters began to strain the relationship with his boss. When the Asian Financial Crisis rocked the emerging economies of Southeast Asia, Mahathir took a controversially unconventional approach. He pegged Malaysia’s currency, the Ringgit, to the US Dollar and severely restricted its fungibility on world markets. Though the move was ultimately the right one for Malaysia’s economy, Anwar’s vocal opposition to it finally destroyed his relationship with Mahathir.

Sensing that Anwar was using his criticism not just to fight Mahathir’s currency policy but to build a political coalition against him, Mahathir reacted with surprising fury. He ousted Anwar from his position and from UMNO, charged him with sodomy – a move designed to hurt his standing with Malays – and jailed him under the Internal Security Act (ISA). The ISA is a successor to similar laws enacted during British rule and conceived as powerful but necessary tools for fighting a longstanding and very effective Communist insurgency. The ISA’s use as a political tool against Anwar cast a shadow over Malaysian governance until 2012 when the ISA was repealed and replaced by two other laws ostensibly written with greater accountability in mind.

Mahathir finally felt prepared to retire from politics in 2003 once Anwar was safely in prison. However, Mahathir did not go quitely into a post-political life. Through his influence in UMNO, Mahathir first maneuvered to place Badawi — and unlikely candidate — in the Prime Minister’s post before later turning against him in favor of Mohammad Najib bin Razak, scion of a political family and son of the country’s second Prime Minister. Aside from these maneuvers, there were constant declarations from Mahathir himself opining on all manner of subjects. His statements had a tremendous impact on UMNO’s leadership in particular, constraining their freedom of action and bending the party to his will despite his status as a private citizen.

Najib, a compelling politician in his own right, began to exert himself more independently than Mahathir was comfortable with. Public disagreements between the two occasionally caused concern within UMNO, especially as Anwar’s leadership of a series of opposition coalitions began to erode BN’s dominance of Malaysian politics even as he served a second prison term for new charges of sodomy starting in 2015. When emerging details about the massive 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal began to implicate Najib himself, Mahathir again intervened boldly.

Bersatu

Translated from Malay, “Bersatu” means “united” and was the short name Mahathir selected for an entirely new political party he would use to take on Najib. Though the party drew some prominent defectors from UMNO, it appeared to have the narrow political goal of saving Malaysia from Najib’s corruption by replacing him with Mahathir. To accomplish this, he made a pact with Pakatan, presenting Anwar as the victim of a politically motivated conspiracy and promising to pardon him if they successfully contested the 2018 general election. With pressure mounting from 1MDB, Pakatan managed to win a substantial majority in the parliament. For the first time in Malaysia’s history, BN was no longer in power. Mahathir assumed duties as the country’s seventh Prime Minister on the 10th of May 2018. Anwar was pardoned and released on the 16th and Najib was arrested for corruption in July.

Though their victory seemed complete, there were cracks. As part of the deal with Pakatan, Mahathir was supposed to serve temporarily until some undefined milestone would signal the ascendance of Anwar to the post of Prime Minister. Though both men talked openly about this inevitable transition and their personal reconciliation at the time, Mahathir’s remaining in the position for nearly two years may have exacerbated distrust between them going back to 1998. These well-known animosities have led to speculation that Mahathir’s resignation today may have had more to do with holding onto power than relinquishing it. According to the popular Malaysian newspaper, The Star, a “well-placed source within Bersatu” alleged that Mahathir’s resignation was the result of an internal split over whether to remain in the Pakatan coalition. Leaving the coalition would have likely forced the King to allow Anwar to form a new government, a move Mahathir ostensibly opposed.

Malaysian politics is now at a crossroads. With Bersatu officially out of Pakatan, nearly a dozen Bersatu officials have resigned along with Mahathir. Though this would typically be a strong signal Anwar will finally achieve his dream of becoming Malaysia’s Prime Minister, the King this afternoon announced Mahathir would continue as “interim Prime Minister” until a new one can be chosen. This is an odd decision considering Anwar remains the leader of the largest party in Parliament, and the Deputy Prime Minister (Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail) is a legitimate politician in her own right. What happens next will be an intense interaction between the King, Anwar, Mahathir, and various factions within Bersatu and Pakatan.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

LOL: The Art of Assassination

On the morning of 14 February 2017, a grainy closed circuit television video shows a middle-aged Korean man striding casually into the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) of Kuala Lumpur International Airport. He is approached from behind by a young woman in a white t-shirt and blue skirt and in a flash she throws a cloth over his face to administer a lethal dose of a colorless, odorless liquid. The victim, Kim Jong Nam, is the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He did not yet realize he was already doomed; assassinated by unknown assailants wielding an unidentified chemical weapon. The ongoing international manhunt that followed revealed the greatest strengths of the storied Royal Malaysian Police Special Branch and the brutality and skill of the North Korean intelligence service. The incident also strained relations between Pyongyang and one of the few countries in the world with which it enjoys normal relations.

The brazen murder also captivated millions and brought a shadowy underworld briefly to the surface. What is not apparent to most is that last week’s dramatic events were not a lucky strike by clever opportunists, they were the end result of a sophisticated intelligence operation – actually several separate operations – spanning multiple countries and likely involving dozens of intelligence officers and their agents. (In the professional jargon of the intelligence community, an agent is someone recruited by an intelligence officer.) Coordinating their activities to achieve the final spectacular, and previously impossible result is the real art behind the assassination.

The Cat and the Mouse

Once considered a likely successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Nam was passed-over following a careless indiscretion and went quickly into exile while his younger sibling thrashed about in the tense early days of his rule. Despite great doubt about his ability to muster the ruthlessness required to retain power over the isolated country, Kim Jong Un quickly consolidated his hold using imprisonment and death to control anyone presenting the slightest political threat. In an environment where even kinship was less important than loyalty, Kim Jong Nam was bound to be targeted even if he had not made statements questioning the stability of his brother’s regime.

Nam Assassination
Before his fortunes faded, Kim Jong Nam (left) was the presumptive heir to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Now his half-brother, Kim Jong Un (right), leads the country. Photo credit: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/15/exclusive-two-female-secret-agents-behind-murder-kim-jong-unsbrother/

The elder Kim withdrew deeper into a dark exile after his father’s death in 2012. In China and Macau he was assumed to be under state protection and travelled under numerous aliases. He had already survived at least two attempts on his life and reportedly begged his half-brother to spare his life and that of his family. His final minutes in Kuala Lumpur were a bizarre drama. After being assaulted by the woman in white, he was initially treated at an airport clinic before being evacuated by ambulance to a local hospital. He died en route, just as police were beginning their hunt for his alleged attackers, an Indonesian girl – Siti Aisyah – and a Vietnamese national, Doan Thi Huong, the now infamous woman wearing the coldly ironic “LOL” t-shirt.

After her attack on Kim Jong Nam, CCTV footage shows Doan calmly leaving the scene and catching a taxi outside. Despite having just administered a lethal dose of an unknown chemical, she displayed no concern for her own safety and wore no obvious protective equipment. She had clearly practiced the sequence. Both Doan and Siti Aisyah later told police separately they believed they were taking part in a made for television prank. But Doan’s actions in the 48 hours prior to the attack suggest she had received some training in tradecraft. During that time she stayed in three hotels in the immediate vicinity of the airport and paid cash for her lodging. At one point she borrowed a pair of scissors and cut her hair, leaving the remnants in the trash can in her room. Her activities during the day are just coming to light but are now known to have included numerous rehearsals and examinations of the target area; possibly in conjunction with Siti Aisyah. These are classic, if clumsy techniques to avoid detection and rehearse the operation. They certainly signal a nefarious intent.

The Art of Assassination

To the casual observer, Kim Jong Nam’s death may seem like the handiwork of a couple clever and highly trained operatives. The reality is that intelligence operations of this kind are highly choreographed, involve dozens of actors, and are compartmented for security. Assassinating Kim Jong Nam required at least five, and as many as seven separate operations managed by seven or more intelligence officers with perhaps dozens of agents in Macau, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. The overall operation likely consisted of the following supporting operations:

  • Recruit the assassins. Siti Aisyah was recruited in Indonesia. Doan may have been recruited in Vietnam.
  • Determine Kim Jong Nam’s travel plans. Doan was aware of Kim Jong Nam’s travel plans at least 48 hours prior to the attack. She used this time to rehearse and to complete her reconnaissance. Information gleaned from his social media feed is not reliable enough for this purpose and had to be corroborated with direct knowledge from intercepted communications or recruited agents in a position to provide assured access to his itinerary.
  • Report Kim Jong Nam’s movements. The attack required very precise information about his flight, his mode of transportation, his likely arrival time at the terminal, the gate/check-in counter for his flight, what he was wearing, etc.; all of which had to be communicated to the assassins in a timely manner. A botched operation would have been far too damaging to leave this to chance. This could have been as simple as a phone warning from his hotel but doing this reliably requires layers of mobile and static surveillance at the hotel, the airport, and his many residences.
  • Deliver the chemical. The chemical used to kill Kim Jong Nam was smuggled into Malaysia or manufactured locally. It likely required special skill to make and specific equipment to store and administer. For Security, Doan would have received the chemical secretly and been trained in its use at the last possible moment raising the risk it could have killed bystanders or the assassins themselves.
  • Kill Kim Jong Nam. There is a possibility Doan and Siti Aisyah may have been employed separately to ensure redundancy. They may even have been unaware of each other’s activities. The leaked CCTV footage of the attack supports this conclusion, though there is new information that they rehearsed the attack together.
  • Observe and report the outcome. Though this could have been conducted overtly through North Korean diplomats and/or monitoring of the press, it is a critical piece. At a minimum, Doan needed to report her task complete or a separate observer had to be in place at the scene to do so. Emerging information suggests this was the task of the four North Korean nationals still sought by Malaysian police.
  • Exfiltrate the assets. The four remaining fugitives all left Malaysia within a few hours of the operation. They took circuitous routes back to North Korea via Indonesia, Dubai, Russia, and elsewhere. Their roles are not certain but probably also included passing intelligence and issuing final orders. One, Ri Jong Chol, remained in Kuala Lumpur and was apprehended Monday. Doan and Siti Aisyah seemed to lack viable escape plans. It is possible they were left as a diversion to throw investigators off the trail of fleeing North Korean intelligence officers.
assassination malaysia
Deputy National Police Chief of Malaysia Noor Rashid Ibrahim, left, speaks as Selangor Police Chief Abdul Samah Mat listens during a press conference at the Bukit Aman national police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. Photo credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian, http://time.com/4676018/kim-jong-nam-death-north-korea-suspects/

Though it was possible to conduct some of the supporting operations above clandestinely, meaning the operations themselves remain hidden, the politically explosive death of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother could never be kept secret and therefore had to be done covertly, meaning the sponsor’s hand remains hidden. A covert operation is much more difficult to execute than a clandestine one and requires layers of separation between intelligence officers and their agents that are typically not highly trained operatives. Agents are deniable and sometimes coerced. Occasionally they do not know whom they are working for or even that they are working for someone at all.

As an additional security measure, the supporting operations would be kept completely separate. The risk of detection is highest when these operations come together through communications or physical contact, meaning the moment of greatest vulnerability was during the attack itself when all the pieces were brought together in time and space. At that point, all the complicated designs of the North Korean regime rested on the element of surprise and the skill and demeanor of half-trained agents.

Ultimately, the assassination of Kim Jong Nam was a well-planned and skillfully executed intelligence operation, but the Royal Malaysian Police Special Branch is untangling the knot with great efficiency. With its roots in the long, difficult fight against Communist insurgency, Special Branch is a tough adversary in the ongoing spy game. Known locally as SB, Special Branch serves as both the internal and external intelligence service of the Malaysian state. They enjoy good relationships with counterparts in the region and are receiving excellent mutual support from Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry which is aggressively setting the conditions for international cooperation in the investigation. Though culpability for Kim Jong Nam’s death may never be fully proven, SB has managed to minimize political damage to Malaysia and imposed a high cost on North Korea. With the dust still settling, only Kim Jong Un himself can say if his brother’s murder was worth the resultant damage to relations with Malaysia and the increased suspicion that the operation has inspired around the world.


Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He provided expertise in special and intelligence operations to NATO from 2013-2016. Read about one of his encounters with the North Koreans in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia on the Brink

Malaysia is at a political crossroads. In what appears to be a conflict between the scion of a dynastic political order and the powerful personality of one of the country’s founding fathers, Malaysians ponder a frightfully uncertain political future. The setting is an ongoing corruption scandal involving quasi-governmental development firm, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, that reaches all the way to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. In a story alleging appalling arrogance and complexity, Najib is accused of pocketing $700 million USD in funds siphoned away from 1MDB.[1] Son of the country’s respected second Prime Minister, and President of the ruling coalition’s United Malay National Organization (UMNO), Najib’s lineage gives him unique importance as a link between the country’s present and its political past. Such shocking accusations against him are particularly wrenching for Malaysia’s Malay (Muslim) community but what’s less obvious to casual observers is that they may actually threaten political stability in this peaceful Southeast Asian nation.

Malaysia’s Real Malay Dilemma

The appalling scandal appears to be the result of a dispute between Najib and Mahathir Mohamad, longtime UMNO strongman and former Prime Minister. Both are important figures, but admiring Malays regard Mahathir with near religious devotion, a source of great political power that he routinely uses. His political whims still shape Malaysian politics and though he’s been out of office since 2003, his influence is ever-present. Malaysians largely credit Mahathir’s leadership with their country’s emergence from colonialism as a modern and wealthy democracy. A conflict between these leaders puts Malaysians in a schizophrenic quandary because at one time, Mahathir was Najib’s sponsor.

If Najib survives as Prime Minister, the perception of corruption in the system may sour the disillusioned Malaysian electorate to the point that they finally abandon UMNO and the rest of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN).  The last two elections were extremely close for BN and notwithstanding the incarceration of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy (yes, sodomy), his opposition coalition (Pakatan Rakyat) holds together despite its enormous ideological fractures.  Facing abandonment by its Malay constituency, UMNO may be forced to make a deal with the Islamic party, PAS. Like Islamic parties elsewhere, PAS is seen as a less corrupt alternative, though its periodic insistence on implementing Sharia and Hudud laws makes it abhorrent to Malaysia’s sizeable Chinese and Indian minorities as well as its more worldly Malay communities.

An UMNO-PAS deal would solidify communal stresses into geographic blocks, something of a security nightmare for Malaysia’s leadership which has traditionally depended upon the diversity of its neighborhoods to deny safe-haven to would be insurgents. More Islamization and more power for Malay-majority northern states would push minority Chinese and Indians away from BN in favor of Pakatan. This would position minority communities in Penang and Selengor firmly against rural Malay communities in Johor, Pahang, Terengganu, and Kelantan.  This creates for the first time a very distinct political geographic divide within the country that will very negatively affect its stability.

Malaysia Racial Distribution
The Geographic Divide. An UMNO-PAS deal could divide Peninsular Malaysia into political-racial voting blocks; a geographic separation for the first time in the country’s history.  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Malaysia

Mahathir Waning

If Mahathir emerges victorious, there will be massive turnover at the pinnacle of UMNO resulting in many second tier leaders rising to the top. The current Deputy Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yasin will likely take the top job with Hishamuddin Hussein (son of another former Prime Minister) as Muhyiddin’s deputy…But this will be a pyrrhic victory for Mahathir.  He’s 90 years old and finding it increasingly hard to continue wielding power from his “retirement” villa.  His son and daughter aren’t proving to be quite the political pit bulls that he is and perhaps most importantly, Malaysians are tiring of his antics.  As one Malaysian colleague put it, they want to honor his accomplishments, not continue to be ruled by proxy.  Eager to avoid exposing his hand in Najib’s impending downfall, Mahathir has allowed Muhyiddin to portray himself as the anti-Najib and build an independent power base. Ultimately, Muhyiddin will finish the job Najib began of freeing Malaysia from Mahathir’s influence and though the country will remain ruled by the party of its founding fathers, UMNO will be greatly diminished and without Mahathir for the first time in a generation.

One way or the other, UMNO is facing a survival decision for the first time in its sixty-nine year history: get rid of Najib or sideline Mahathir. It is a decision UMNO is not really prepared to make and while most view this as a conflict between two political stalwarts, it is actually a more significant symptom of real democratic change within Malaysia. Poor management of the transition may destabilize Malaysia itself so let’s hope they get it right.

[1] He now claims this was a $700 million election contribution from Saudi Arabia.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.