Assad’s return, Turkish poll revive refugee issue in Europe

For months, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the Turkish presidential candidate who hopes this Sunday finally to unseat Recep Tayyip Erodgan, has vowed to send home millions of Syrians. Even after the first vote in mid-May suggested not quite enough Turks were buying the rhetoric, he returned to his anti-migrant theme.

“I am announcing it here,” he said the week after the election, “As soon as I come to power, I will send [10 million] refugees home. Period.”

Even while he was giving that speech, in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad was preparing to fly to Riyadh, where Syria was readmitted to the Arab League, a sign of impending normalization.

Viewed from Europe, the return of Assad to the Middle East fold has multiple facets. But perhaps the most concerning is how it has reopened the question of Syrian refugees. Coupled with the increased anti-migrant rhetoric as the Turkish election drew to a close, those two days in May have reopened what many in Europe hoped would be a permanently frozen issue.

The return of Assad and the beginning of a path to normalization don’t mean that the refugee issue will be immediately back on the table. But part of the reason Arab countries, particularly Jordan and Lebanon, were interested in exploring normalization was that their countries are straining under the weight of so many refugees.

The hope in Middle Eastern capitals is that Assad inside the tent might bring about a solution that would allow some Syrians to go home, thereby easing the burden.

Viewed from Europe, though, it means the weaponization of refugees is, once again, an option.

Refugees forced out?

Certainly that is how Kilicdaroglu sees the Syrians within Turkey’s borders. The number Kilicdaroglu quoted was perhaps exaggerated – the official number of Syrian refugees registered in the country is 3.6 million, although there are likely to be many thousands more unregistered. But what his candidacy did was drag the issue of Syrian refugees back to the very center of political conversation.

It’s often unremarked in the media quite how forceful Kilicdaroglu’s proposed policy toward Syrian refugees would be. He said he would normalize with Assad and immediately sign a deal that would send millions of Syrians back.

And this return would not be voluntary, in the way Erdogan has proposed. It would be a forced deportation, within two years – something that remains illegal under international law.

More concerning, though, to European capitals is his suggestion that he would demand further funds from the EU to pay for the return of Syrians.

Some of what Kilicdaroglu was saying was, of course, political rhetoric designed to win an election. And when on Tuesday the third-placed presidential candidate Sinan Ogan was pictured shaking hands with and endorsing Erdogan, it certainly seems unlikely that Kilicdaroglu will get the chance to enact his policies.

Ogan came third in the presidential election with just over 5% of the vote; if only some of his supporters turn out for Erdogan on Sunday, the incumbent is likely to win.

But for Europe, that won’t be Kilicdaroglu’s legacy. Erdogan is not a man who has repeatedly won by not sensing which way the political wind is blowing. If Kilicdaroglu could get nearly 45% of the vote on such a staunchly anti-Syrian platform, then perhaps, he or his advisers will calculate, there may be more negotiation room with the European Union.

Perhaps the 2016 deal with Brussels – which gave Ankara €6 billion in return for stopping migrants crossing its territory into the EU – could be renegotiated, as Kilicdaroglu had suggested.

Neither the renegotiation of the deal nor the weaponization of refugees will happen overnight, if at all. But what the return of Assad and the Turkish election have done is create the conditions for new developments. And people in desperate situations do not wait for events to overtake them.

For Turkish politicians even to talk about forcibly deporting refugees, or the return of Assad presaging more pressure for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, creates a collective hostile environment. And this is where Europe most needs to be concerned. Because those refugees pushed out of the Middle East will not all go back to Syria.

Certainly some will. But 6 million Syrians have not spent years displaced by choice; they desperately fear what might be waiting for them in Syria, and, inevitably, they will do anything possible to avoid that fate. Which means only one thing: a journey to Europe.

This is the political danger behind the hope that millions of refugees could just stay frozen in limbo for years on end. Part of why the Middle East finally agreed to normalize with Assad was that the costs of inaction had simply become too great. And as the February earthquakes proved, as much as there are unexpected political events, there are also unexpected “acts of God.”

The longer the limbo of Syrians continued, the more likely it was that something would come along to disrupt it and begin another mass movement of people. Now, that day has arrived.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Follow him on Twitter @FaisalAlYafai.

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Time constraints prevent US sale of F-35 fighter jets: RTAF

ACM Napadej Dhupatemiya, then commander of the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF), left, meets Gen Ken Wilsbach, commander of the United States Pacific Air Forces, to discuss the RTAF's plan to buy F-35 fighter jets. The meeting took place in Hawaii in March 2022. (Photo: RTAF)
ACM Napadej Dhupatemiya, then commander of the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF), left, meets Gen Ken Wilsbach, commander of the United States Pacific Air Forces, to discuss the RTAF’s plan to buy F-35 fighter jets. The meeting took place in Hawaii in March 2022. (Photo: RTAF)

The Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) has provided an explanation as to why the United States is not selling its F-35 fighter jets to Thailand at this time.

There were several time constraints that prevented the US from supplying its fifth-generation fighter jets to the Thai air force following the request for procurement, RTAF spokesman AVM Prapas Sonjaidee said on Thursday.

He said the US requires a minimum of 10 years to process its supply of F-35A jets to a new buying country before delivery. The buying country needs to install specific infrastructures, training and security systems as per the requirements, as these jets were designed with new technical and operational concepts and possess stealth capability, he added.

In addition, the logistic, inventory and management systems for F-35A jets differ from those of the F-16 jets, making it impossible for the two types of fighter jets to share infrastructures, he said.

According to the spokesman, the US has expressed its intention to discuss necessary preparations for future supply of F-35A jets to the RTAF with Thai authorities.

The US has also proposed that the RTAF consider purchasing its 4.5th-generation fighter jets, namely F-16 and F-15 fighter jets, which can be delivered sooner and meet the air force’s requirements, AVM Prapas said.

He emphasised on the air force’s need to replace its old F-16 jets, which are approaching decommissioning.

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US war on Taiwanese semiconductors could benefit Japan

On May 15, Berkshire Hathaway reported in a Form 13F filing to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that it had completed the sale of its $4 billion stake in Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC). This sale completed a process that began in February, when Berkshire Hathaway announced that it had sold 86% of its holdings in TSMC.

In April, Berkshire Hathaway’s leader Warren Buffett told Nikkei that the geopolitical tension between the United States and China was “certainly a consideration” in his decision to divest from TSMC.

TSMC, Buffett told Nikkei, is a “well-managed company” but Berkshire Hathaway would find other places for its capital.

At his May 6 morning meeting, Buffett said TSMC “is one of the best-managed companies and important companies in the world, and you’ll be able to say the same thing five, 10 or 20 years from now. I don’t like its location and re-evaluated that.”

By “location,” Buffett meant Taiwan, in the context of the threats made by the United States against China. He decided to wind down his investment in TSMC “in the light of certain things that were going on.” Buffett announced that he would move some of this capital toward the building of a fledgling US domestic semiconductor industry.

TSMC, based in Hsinchu, Taiwan, is the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer. In 2022, it accounted for 56% of the global market and more than 90% of advanced chip manufacturing.

Buffett’s investment in TSMC was based on the Taiwanese company’s immense grip on the world semiconductor market.

In August 2022, US President Joe Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act into law, which will provide $280 billion to fund semiconductor manufacturing inside the United States. On December 6, Biden joined TSMC chairman Mark Liu at the $40 billion expansion of TSMC’s semiconductor factories in North Phoenix, Arizona.

Liu said at the project’s announcement that the second TSMC factory is “a testimony that TSMC is also taking a giant step forward to help build a vibrant semiconductor ecosystem in the United States.”

The first TSMC plant will open in 2024 and the second, which was announced in December, will open in 2026.

On February 22 this year, The New York Times ran a long article (“Inside Taiwanese chip giant, a US expansion stokes tensions”) that pointed out, based on interviews with TSMC employees, that “high costs and managerial challenges” show “how difficult it is to transplant one of the most complicated manufacturing processes known to man halfway across the world.”

At the December 6 announcement, Biden said, “American manufacturing is back,” but it is only back at a much higher cost (the plant’s construction cost is 10 times what it would have cost in Taiwan).

Wayne Chiu, an engineer who left TSMC in 2022, told The New York Times: “The most difficult thing about wafer manufacturing is not technology. The most difficult thing is personnel management. Americans are the worst at this because Americans are the most difficult to manage.”

‘Blow up Taiwan’

US Ambassador Robert O’Brien, the former national security adviser of Donald Trump, told Steve Clemons, an editor at Semafor, at the Global Security Forum in Doha, Qatar, on March 13, 2023, “The United States and its allies are never going to let those [semiconductor] factories fall into Chinese hands.”

China, O’Brien said, could build “the new OPEC of silicon chips” and thereby “control the world economy.” The United States will prevent this possibility, he said, even if it means a military strike.

On May 2, at a Milken Institute event, US congressman Seth Moulton said that if Chinese forces move into Taiwan, “we will blow up TSMC.… Of course, the Taiwanese really don’t like this idea.”

These outlandish statements by O’Brien and Moulton have a basis in a widely circulated paper from the US Army War College, published in November 2021, by Jared M McKinney and Peter Harris (“Broken Nest: Deterring China from Invading Taiwan”).

“The United States and Taiwan should lay plans for a targeted scorched-earth strategy that would render Taiwan not just unattractive if ever seized by force, but positively costly to maintain. This could be done effectively by threatening to destroy facilities belonging to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company,” they write.

Right after Moulton made his incendiary remarks, former US defense undersecretary Michèle Flournoy said it was a “terrible idea” and that such an attack would have a “$2 trillion impact on the global economy within the first year and you put manufacturing around the world at a standstill.”

Taiwan officials responded swiftly to Moulton, with Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng asking, “How can our national army tolerate this situation if he says he wants to bomb this or that?” While Chiu responded to Moulton’s statement about a military strike on TSMC, in fact, the US government had already attacked the ability of this Taiwanese company to remain in Taiwan.

Taiwanese Economics Vice-Minister Lin Chuan-neng said in response to these threats and Buffett’s sale of TSMC that his government “will do its utmost to let the world know that Taiwan is stable and safe.”

Thus the incendiary remarks aimed at China now threaten the collapse of Taiwan’s economy.

Made in Japan

In his May 6 meeting, Warren Buffett said something that gives a clue about where semiconductor manufacturing might be diverted. “I feel better about the capital that we’ve got deployed in Japan than Taiwan,” he said.

In 1988, 51% of the world’s semiconductors were made in Japan, but as of 2022, the number is merely 9%. In June 2022, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) announced that it would put in 40% of a planned $8.6 billion for a TSMC semiconductor manufacturing plant in Kumamoto.

METI said in November that it had selected the Rapidus Corporation, which includes a stake by NTT, SoftBank, Sony and Toyota, to manufacture next-generation 2-nanometer chips. It is likely that Berkshire Hathaway will invest in this new business.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of US Power.

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Yevgeny Prigozhin for president?

Many people are wondering about Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group. In the middle of the battle for Bakhmut, Prigozhin started a campaign against Russia’s military leadership, right up to and including the minister of defense, Sergei Shoighu.

He complained about the lack of ammunition for his forces, then about the failure of Russia’s army to protect his flanks as his forces operated inside Bakhmut, then complained about Vladimir Putin, using his nickname in Russia, the Grandfather.

And now he has expanded his attacks saying that the entire Ukraine war was a big mistake and a disaster for Russia.

Prigozhin is not, despite his pretensions, a trained military leader. The battle of Bakhmut was actually led by two highly experienced and tough Russian generals, Sergey Surovikin and Mikhail Mizintsev.  

Even so, the Kremlin has been quiet about Prigozhin’s outbursts, and so far he has not been fired or disciplined.

This is strange, particularly since Russians are being thrown in jail for criticizing the military. How can that general crackdown happen while Prigozhin, the bad-mouther-in-chief, is not arrested or punished at all?

In his latest interview, Prigozhin (right) talks to Konstantin Dolgov. Prigozhin revealed that Wagner had lost 15,000 men in Bakhmut of whom 10,000 were convicts he recruited.

(A video of his latest statements can be found here.)

In Russia, politics can be very brutal. Regime critics often wind up dead – they fall out of windows, are poisoned or shot, become suspiciously sudden victims of heart attacks or other maladies. Prigozhin has so far escaped all that.

So what is really going on? Russia has an upcoming presidential election in March 2024.  Current President Putin, who is now 70 years old, needs to decide if he will stand in the upcoming election.

There has been an inordinate amount of speculation about Putin’s health problems, and while no one can say for sure, there is physical evidence that supports the argument about his ill health. Quite possibly, Putin may have early-onset Parkinson’s disease. Perhaps Putin will decide not to run in the coming election.

That leaves a number of candidates in the field, including Nikolai Patrushev, the former head of Russia’s security service, the FSB, and now secretary (head) of Russia’s Security Council.  Another possible candidate is Dmitry Medvedev, who served as president of Russia from 2008-2012 and is currently deputy head of the Security Council.  Both Patrushev and Medvedev are Putin loyalists.

But Prigozhin also is known as a Putin loyalist, although his most recent rants suggest he is no longer. It is possible Prigozhin is positioning himself to run for president, if Putin steps down. He would style himself the successful commander and the peace candidate. 

Emulating retired General Dwight Eisenhower, who won the US presidency during the darkest period of the Korean war after campaigning on the promise that he would go to Korea and, presumably, bring an end to the Korean war (which he did by agreeing to split the country into two), Prigozhin could campaign on a platform of going to Ukraine and making a deal with Zelensky.

Prigozhin can only pull off a run for the presidency of Russia if the security apparatus in the country wants him to do so and to be successful  It is doubtful they would let him run in an election if the outcome would undermine the security establishment and the military.  Indeed, the possibility that Prigozhin might run carries with it considerable angst and doubt in the Russian establishment about the army and its performance in Ukraine.

Would the army stand by and let Prigozhin win such an election? While the Russian army in recent times on only one occasion revolted against state leadership – in the case of the failed coup d’état against Gorbachev – from the army’s point of view an anti-military president poses a much more significant threat.

But Prigozhin may not get as far as actually running for office. Putin could decide to run again, which would short-circuit Prigozhin. Or, Putin could fire Prigozhin or find other ways to silence him.

Putin has yet to act, but surely he was waiting for the Bakhmut battle to end. Now that Russia has won its second major military victory in Ukraine, after Mariupol, there is less need to suffer Prigozhin. It isn’t clear what kind of support Prigozhin may have in Russia, but he is clearly one of Putin’s men, or at least was until recently.

An aerial view shows smoke rising from the devastated city of Bakhmut during a Russian attack. Image: Screengrab / 93rd Mechanized Brigade ‘Kholodnyi Yar video / Handout

An alternative scenario is that Putin will give Wagner forces and Prigozhin medals for their victory, already hinted at by the Kremlin, and ship Prigozhin off elsewhere, preferably outside of Russia.

Wagner forces are operating in Sudan, Libya, and perhaps still in Syria, so there are places where Russia has interests that can make use of Prigozhin’s talents. Re-deploying Prigozhin would not end any threat he might pose, but it would take him out of the limelight.

Should Prigozhin keep up his running rants against Russia’s leadership, it is hard to see him surviving for very long.

Stephen Bryen is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and the Yorktown Institute. This article was originally published on his Substack, Weapons and Strategy. Asia Times is republishing it with permission.

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Asian children prime victims of climate change

Silvia Gaya is senior adviser for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), climate and sustainable environment for UNICEF’s East Asia and Pacific Regional Office (EAPRO).
She is an engineer with advanced degrees in politics and international relations.

Silvia Gaya.

She brings more than 22 years’ experience in development programs and emergency contexts (natural disasters, conflict, epidemic outbreaks and extreme climate events) and an additional 10 years’ experience working with the private sector in developed countries.

She has managed large programs including climate resilience and adaptation programs in complex environments such as fragile contexts, countries under sanctions, and high-profile emergencies.

In her most recent role in UNICEF’s New York headquarters as senior adviser on water and environment, Gaya provided global leadership in the areas of water, climate resilience, and other environmental sectors in schools and elsewhere.

Excerpt of an interview with Silvia Gaya follow.


Moumita Dastidar: The UNICEF report “Over the Tipping Point” highlights how children in Asia face multiple, often overlapping, shocks and stresses linked to climate change, creating multiplier effects and cascading impacts in the region. Could you talk more about the particular challenges we face here in Asia? 

Silvia Gaya: Let me start by saying that for the children in East Asia and the Pacific, the climate crisis is already happening. This is not some future projection. It is a reality that children are already dealing with across the region.

New UNICEF analysis reveals that in the East Asia and Pacific region over 140 million children are highly exposed to water scarcity; 120 million children are highly exposed to coastal flooding; 210 million children are highly exposed to cyclones; and 460 million children are highly exposed to air pollution. This is incredibly worrying.

Moreover, they are facing not just one or two of these types of shocks, but potentially three or four or more of them. It’s appalling that 65% of children across the region face four or more shocks, compared to the global average of 37%.

This is eroding their coping capacities – children lose access to basic services they need, they are forced to leave school, compromising future learning; girls in particular shoulder the burden associated with caregiving at home; and families are forced to sell productive assets.

All of this is exacerbating inequalities that children face. and as the climate crisis worsens, it drives a wedge between wealthy and poor children, as poorer children do not have the means or access to key services that can protect them and build their resilience.

MD: The report also highlights how children in East Asia and the Pacific are experiencing a sixfold increase in the number of climate-related disasters compared with their grandparents. As we are witnessing these alarming crises, how do you think we can readjust to this new reality? 

SG: This reinforces the reality that the climate crisis is already here, with just 1.1 degree of warming globally as a result of greenhouse gas emissions already emitted. The only long-term solution to this crisis is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But as the crisis is already happening, and as this is likely to get worse in the years to come, we need to put in place strong adaptation and resilience mechanisms, particularly for children, to ensure that they are able to survive and thrive through the increasing frequency and severity of shocks. 

MD: Climate change impacts everyone, yet its effects are experienced unevenly. How does it affect children? How does UNICEF address the impact of this climate crisis on children? 

SG: One thing is very clear, and that is that the poorest children are going to be most affected. They have least access to key social services that otherwise would have built their resilience. Moreover, the climate crisis stands to exacerbate not just economic, but also other types of inequalities. For example, it disproportionately affects women and girls, children with disabilities, or indigenous groups. 

UNICEF is working hard to ensure that all children, starting with the poorest and most marginalized, receive access to key social services – and that those social services are climate smart and able to continue to serve children and their families, despite the increasing frequency and severity of climate shocks now and in the years to come. 

This is the basis of building their resilience and the resilience of their communities. It’s also important to say that we are doing this together with children and youth, as their voices are needed and essential to help them to shape the future they aim for. 

MD: The report talks about “climate smart solutions” to counter the devastating impact of the overlapping disasters and shocks. How do these solutions reduce the risks for children affected? 

SG: Climate-smart solutions reduce risks for children affected through several mechanisms. 

First, climate-smart solutions are durable and built to incorporate the risks that climate change poses. So, for example, water and sanitation facilities are built in a way that they can withstand droughts, floods and saline intrusion; or schools and health clinics are built in a way that they are still accessible after a shock occurs. And this durability is critical to withstand not just one, but several shocks, over time.

Climate-smart services also incorporate early warning systems, so that they are prepared to manage risks before they occur.

Second, climate-smart solutions are tailored to adjust to the new and emerging needs and realities that children face as a result of climate change. For example, the spread of vector borne diseases are likely to increase as a result of climate change, and so health centers might need to adjust to treat those diseases and advice patients on preventing them.

Water and sanitation facilities might need to be adjusted to changing levels of water availability, as a result of changing levels of precipitation due to climate change. In schools, children should be taught the science of climate change, as well as mechanisms to better protect themselves from climate impact. 

And last, of course, climate-smart solutions aim to reduce emissions, pollution, and waste as much as possible – to create a better environment for children. By reducing children’s exposure to the shocks and hazards and by reducing their vulnerability, we reduce their risk levels.

MD: What can we, as individuals, do to be part of these solutions, and to protect our environment and our children? 

SG: First, learning and understanding the problem is key. I am pleased to say that just by reading this report you are taking the first step – which is having a better understanding of the climate risks.

But there is much more that I would recommend individuals need to know to understand the full range of risks, as well as how they interact with each other. As this report demonstrates, there are many interlinkages between shocks, creating cascading impacts. However, only when we fully understand the scope of the problem can we begin to address it.

Second, I would recommend that we all do everything we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, which is harmful to children currently, as well as future generations.

Third, I would recommend that you engage with children and young people in your communities – see what their needs are and hear their concerns. Young people have a tremendous amount of insight on this – as they should, this is their planet to inherit.

And last, but certainly not least, advocate with local and national leaders to prioritize children and the services that children depend on most in adaptation plans. This will be essential to reduce the risk that they face from climate change.

We are not going to be able to tackle this crisis successfully unless each of these four points are addressed. We owe it to children to do everything we can to provide them with a livable planet. 

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Malaysian film Tiger Stripes wins the Grand Prize at Cannes’ Critics’ Week

Starring Zafreen Zairizal, Deena Ezral and Shaheizy Sam, the film tells the story of how 12-year-old Zaffan becomes the first amongst her friends to hit puberty, only to discover a horrifying secret about her body. 

In a statement to the press, jury president Audrey Diwan commended the film, calling it “irreverent and uncompromising”.

“It is content to fully assume its seductive singularity. It was the first film of the selection that we saw. It has passed the test of time.”

Multiple critics have also showered Tiger Stripes with praise, with The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw writing: “The performances the director gets from her young cast are tremendous and it is terrifically shot.”

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Anwar vs Mahathir, always and forever

SINGAPORE – Malaysia’s two-time former premier Mahathir Mohamad will be 98 years old in July, but neither his age nor diminishing influence has diminished his political maneuvering.

The nonagenarian former leader has been in opposition to every prime minister that succeeded him, and it is little surprise he views the incumbent – his former protégé – as unfit to rule.  

In recent months, Mahathir has labeled Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim as “oppressive” and accused his government of politically marginalizing the ethnic Malay majority.

Mahathir also claims Anwar has pressured venue owners to cancel events promoting his “Malay People’s Proclamation”, a document in which the ex-premier lambasts corrupt Malay leaders and urges Malays to unite to “save” their race.

Most bitterly, Mahathir filed a US$32.4 million defamation lawsuit against Anwar this month after the latter implied that he had amassed personal wealth during his tenure as Malaysia’s longest-ruling premier from 1981 to 2003.

Anwar has brushed aside a demand to apologize over the remark and reportedly claimed his predecessor’s wealth is an “open secret.”  

Shunning calls to retire and serve as an elder statesman, Mahathir is now attempting to court Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), an ultra-conservative Islamist party that was politically trampled under his first 22-year tenure, to build a united front against Anwar, who established a “unity” coalition government after a November election that transformed the political landscape.

PAS, for one, stunned observers by winning 43 seats at the polls, the highest number of any party, in what has been dubbed as the “green wave” after the color of its party flag.

Mahathir, meanwhile, suffered a crushing electoral defeat, coming in fourth out of five candidates in his bid to defend the Langkawi parliamentary seat in his stronghold home state of Kedah.

Despite having been re-elected as prime minister just four years ago, Mahathir only managed to win less than 10% of the vote in a seat where he was the incumbent, marking his first electoral loss since 1969. It was also an emphatic defeat for his newly-formed Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA) coalition, which saw all of its 168 candidates forfeit their electoral deposits.

Among the casualties were 58-year-old Mukhriz Mahathir, the former premier’s second eldest son and president of Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang), a party he and Mahathir founded in 2020 after their dismissal from Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), another party they co-founded in 2016 that now leads Malaysia’s main opposition bloc, Perikatan Nasional (PN), alongside PAS.

New Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gestures during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
Not as popular as he used to be: Mahathir Mohamad gestures during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, May 10, 2018. Photo: Agencies

A schism within Pejuang emerged following their defeat, with Mahathir and others quitting the party in early February as he felt it had “strayed from its path” by withdrawing from the GTA coalition under his son’s leadership. While Mahathir vowed to continue his political struggle via GTA, Mukhriz applied for Pejuang to join PN, though the party’s application was tersely rejected.

Ties between Mahathir and Bersatu co-founder Muhyiddin Yassin, who is PN’s chairman and a former premier, have been fraught since 2020 when Mahathir resigned from his second stint as prime minister after being outmaneuvered by the latter in a political coup. Mahathir had labeled Muhyiddin a “traitor” after expelling him and his loyalists from Bersatu after taking power.

Analysts nonetheless see Mahathir’s latest seemingly erratic political maneuvers as a bid to garner backing from PN’s leadership in likely recognition that his influence is moot without a major party platform. While his pro-Malay pressure campaign has earned a prominent endorsement from PAS, it remains unclear whether Mahathir’s camp will be welcomed back into the PN fold.

After leaving Pejuang, Mahathir joined one of GTA’s smaller component parties, Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia (Putra), in February as an adviser. Led by right-wing firebrand Ibrahim Ali, the little-known four-year-old party has never had electoral success. Mahathir then announced his exit from the GTA coalition on May 12, saying it was not moving forward and non-functional.

This was initially puzzling as Mahathir had only weeks earlier stated GTA would be his primary political vehicle. He now says participation in active politics is no longer on his mind as his focus has shifted to promoting his “Malay People’s Proclamation” campaign, opining that Malays from other political parties would not be comfortable supporting his movement if he was still part of GTA.

“Mahathir had to leave GTA because he’s trying to get the support of PN, the bigger coalition. Obviously, if he doesn’t leave GTA, they won’t come on board. Those guys are not going to support him if he’s promoting GTA, so in a sense, he doesn’t have any choice but to leave GTA,” said James Chin, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania.

Mahathir’s 12-point proclamation claims that ethnic Malays, who compromise nearly 70% of the population, have never controlled the economy and that “the only power they possessed, political power, has also slipped out of their hands.” The document further states that the Malay race has to be “revived” and “saved” by putting aside political differences and uniting.

While not directly naming the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) he ruled under for 22 years and defeated at the ballot box in 2018, the proclamation states that “the Malay party built on the foundation of religion, race and nation has been turned into a party to enrich oneself,” in an apparent reference to UMNO leaders that have been implicated in corruption.   

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi share a laugh – though it isn’t clear yet who will have the last one. Image: Twitter

Despite facing numerous corruption charges, UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was controversially appointed as Anwar’s deputy last December after he played a crucial role in brokering the “unity” government coalition. Mahathir has, in turn, accused the government of not being sincere in its anti-corruption campaign, claiming that the dragnet is focused only on opposition politicians.

Among those who have endorsed Mahathir’s proclamation is PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, a one-time strident critic of Mahathir, and other senior PAS leaders. Three Bersatu leaders including the party’s deputy president, information chief and a supreme council member have also signed, along with Mahathir’s son Mukhriz and the Kedah branch of Pejuang’s leadership council.

“Mahathir is shrewd in detecting the directions of political winds. It must have appeared to him that GTA, with its motleys of tired figures, did not quite gain any traction with the Malay base, while the proclamation campaign caught wind, even blowing from the otherwise rival PAS direction,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA).

Mahathir has seemingly also changed his tune on PAS, implying that non-Malays should not fear the “green wave” showing increasing voter support for PN. Non-Malays achieved “a lot of progress” under 60 years of Malay-majority government rule, he tweeted last month adding, “Don’t try to scare them with Malay rule by painting them green,” without addressing anyone directly.

Many non-Malays and ethnic minorities in Malaysia regard PAS’ rising support with unease, fearing the ultra-conservative party, which advocates for a strict interpretation of Islamic law, may eventually come to power and introduce extreme methods of legal punishment and stricter religious restrictions that would infringe on the rights and freedoms of other non-Muslim communities.

Chin sees Mahathir’s overtures as an “indirect admission that he lost the ideological battle” with PAS. “Mahathir’s real philosophy is actually to make the Malays more capitalist so they can compete” with the entrepreneurial ethnic Chinese minority, but national politics had, in fact, “actually moved closer towards Islamic space than toward the Malay nationalism space.”

“Both Mahathir and Hadi are supremely confident of the long-term viability of their respective political platforms that in their view could prevail over all others, friends and foes alike,” Oh told Asia Times. “In the short run… they could team up for the common cause of overthrowing Anwar, and afterward which side could end up swallowing the other remains to be seen.”

Meanwhile, the bitter decades-long feud between Anwar and Mahathir is set to enter the courtroom with defamation hearings set to begin on May 31.

Mahathir and Anwar during a by-election campaign in Port Dickson, October 8, 2018. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Adli Ghazali

While Mahathir has challenged the premier to “show proof” that he enriched himself and maintains no wrongdoing, Anwar has repeatedly challenged the two-time former premier to reveal all his personal and family assets.

Anwar defiantly raised the issue at a public event earlier this month. While not directly naming his long-time nemesis, he invoked the Malay word “pejuang”, which translates to warrior, saying that in order to become one, allegedly ill-gotten wealth must be given “back to the Malays.”

“Your assets are worth billions and your children have planes, ships, bank accounts abroad. Sell it all, bring it back, and give it to the Malays – that is when you will truly be a pejuang,” he said.

Follow Nile Bowie on Twitter at @NileBowie

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