Posted: 28 Jul 2015 12:53 AM PDT
Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak sacks deputy and country's top attorney after questions over claims he took millions from government investment fund
British prime minister David Cameron is facing criticism for pushing ahead with a visit to Malaysia this week at a time when the south-east Asian nation's leader is embroiled in an escalating corruption scandal and has stepped up a crackdown on dissent.
Malaysian premier Najib Razak has been urged to resign after media reports alleged some US$700m linked to a troubled state investment fund had ended up in his personal bank accounts.
Razak has denied taking any public funds for personal use, and his government has lashed out at criticism by mounting a crackdown on dissent that has seen two newspapers suspended and a British-based whistleblowing website blocked.
On Wednesday, the Malaysian premier removed his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, who has openly criticised him over the scandal, just hours after the government sacked the country's top attorney, who had been leading an official investigation into the corruption allegations against Najib.
Politicians and activists who have criticised the government have also been hit with travel restrictions, with one prominent opposition MP barred from leaving the country.
"There could have been a better time for the visit," Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Malaysia's opposition leader, told the Guardian ahead of Cameron's arrival in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, the final stop of a four-nation tour of south-east Asia.
The MP, who is also the wife of jailed opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim, called on Cameron to raise the scandal and human rights issues when he holds talks with Najib, and said he should also meet opposition parties to get "a better idea" about the political turmoil engulfing the former British colony.
"He must not only meet with the government but the opposition as well," she said.
"He should talk about freedom, the suspension of the newspapers and the use of the sedition law – something that is so repressive – and the welfare of the former opposition leader [Anwar]."
Liew Chin Tong, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Action party, said Cameron must tell Najib categorically to "respect the rule of law as well as human rights".
Cameron is hoping to boost trade ties between the UK and the region during his visit that also includes stops in Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam. Efforts to fight jihadist group Isis are also on the agenda during his stops in Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia.
Michael Buehler, a south-east Asian expert at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, said Cameron would not be "entirely honest" if he ignores the corruption claims during his visit, as business and politics remain closely linked in the region.
"One cannot talk about business without also mentioning the political conditions in these countries. Cameron's visit is indeed untimely, given the escalation of the corruption scandal in the country," Buehler said.
Writing in the Daily Mail last week about the trip, Cameron himself vowed to put the fight against graft top of his agenda after claiming critics were "wrong" to say the UK should avoid doing business with countries with barriers to trade, including corruption.
"Many in South East Asia have led the battle against corruption, which costs the global economy billions of pounds a year.
"Britain is joining them in that fight – I've put the issue at the top of the global agenda," he wrote.
Najib's move against the deputy premier came in an unexpected cabinet reshuffle just two days after Muhyiddin broke ranks and openly urged Najib to tell "real facts" over the scandal and answer questions over whether he received the money.
Announcing the decision, Najib said "differences of opinions shouldn't be expressed openly" among his cabinet members, according to the Malay Mail Online website.
The cabinet reshuffle was seen as an attempt to shore up support for the beleaguered Najib in the cabinet, as an internal tussle within the ruling party in the coming days could put pressure on the Malaysian leader to resign.
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