Friday, 5 April 2013

Understanding US Funding to Malaysian Civil Society

In 2012, the New Straits Times came under fire for accusing NGOs and actors within Malaysia’s civil society of scheming anti-government activities in an article titled “Plot to destabilise govt,” by journalist Farrah Naz Karim. The NST piece claimed that because various NGOs received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a non-profit foundation financed by the United States government, this was proof of a foreign destabilization agenda. Online news portal Free Malaysia Today published a counter argument written by Anisah Shukry, “NST report: ‘Ridiculous and rubbish’,” which contained valid refutations by accused figures in civil society who called on the NST to practice greater journalism ethics. Karim’s NST piece failed to substantiate these accusations with analysis and it was no doubt flawed, it is also clear that the author did not personally have a great deal of knowledge about the parties and institutions involved, evident in her erroneously referring to the Israeli government as the “Jewish government”.

Although this article raised contentious sentiments and leveled serious accusations without a clear explanation, the issue itself should be critically examined. Its no secret that the National Endowment for Democracy has a presence in Malaysia, and according to its official website, it provides over $1 million USD to various projects in Malaysia each year. This funding has been perceived suspiciously because of the overtly political nature of the NED’s programs and the fact that senior US political figures have leading roles in the organizations active in Malaysia. According to the NED’s history statement on its official website, the CIA was responsible for distributing covert funding overseas throughout the 1960s, prompting the Lyndon B. Johnson administration to call for the establishment of “a public-private mechanism” to fund overseas activities openly. Alan Weinstein, one of the founders of the National Endowment for Democracy, was famously quoted in a 1991 interview with the Washington Post reaffirming, “A lot of what we [NED] do was done 25 years ago covertly by the CIA.”

The National Endowment for Democracy is funded primarily through the US Congress, within the budget of USAID, the US agency for development assistance, which is part of the US State Department – this means that the money the NED gives to foreign countries comes from public funds paid by citizen taxpayers. Funding mostly flows to its two main component parties, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), both affiliated with the Republican and Democratic political parties in the United States. While the NED remains accountable to the US Congress and is required to publish its disbursements, this doesn't apply to the organizations that it in turn finances, such as the IRI and NDI, both the main recipients of funding in Malaysia. According to historian William Robinson, "NED employs a complex system of intermediaries in which operative aspects, control relationships, and funding trails are nearly impossible to follow and final recipients are difficult to identify."

Former CIA agent Philip Agee stated in an interview in 2005 that “when they [NED] say the promotion of democracy, or civic education, or fortifying civil society, what they really mean is using those euphemisms to cover funding to certain political forces and not to others. In other words, to fortify the opposition of undesirable foreign governments as in the case of Venezuela, or to support a government that is favorable to US interests and avoid of coming to power of forces that are not seen as favorable to US interests.” Critics of the NED claim that the institution has been used for decades to shape popular discourse abroad in favor of political candidates that are friendly to US policies by funding media outlets that highlight human rights abuses and unpopular government policies, and by supporting popular movements that seek to discredit the ruling government or electoral system of a country.

What can be deducted from the NED’s operations in Malaysia? The organization provides grants to a wide array of institutions, among them are some fairly benign groups. The Merdeka Center for Opinion Research receives $60,000 annually to conduct public opinion research; it is one of three organizations that have been accredited by the Election Commission to be observers for the 13th general election and its findings on various issues appear to be fairly accurate. Other such recipients are Lawyers for Liberty, Malaysiakini, and Suaram, who accumulatively receive nearly $200,000 annually. “We make it clear in our annual human rights report that NED provides us with funds so that we are able to monitor the violation of civil and political rights in Malaysia. It’s not some top-secret thing, but NED doesn’t decide what we do in Malaysia. We decide what we plan to do, then we apply for funding for those projects. They don’t dictate nor direct anything,” said Suaram chairperson K Arumugam in an FMT article.

There are clear reasons why Suaram receives funding; it publishes books and political articles written by its founder, Kua Kia Soong, that are highly critical of the Malaysian government and are capable of arousing passions in ethnic minorities who feel marginalized through arguing in favor of regime change. Other US government funded studies on Malaysia highlight where Washington stands on sensitive issues in the country. The US Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission published a scathing report titled “Institutional Racism in Malaysia,” which calls Malaysia “a racist and religious extreme state” and uses extremely provocative language to liken Barisan Nasional to an apartheid regime. The cultural and political autonomy, and the economic status that minority groups enjoy in Malaysia lend credence to the fact that these allegations rely on half-truths and are significantly exaggerated and distorted. It should be seen as significant that funding from the US government is channeled to political or politically affiliated actors that are not neutral, but open in their anti-government sentiments.

What is more significant is the funding that goes into the Malaysian projects of the IRI & NDI, which operate under a significant lack of transparency are not required to publish detailed financial disbursements. According to the NED, the International Republican Institute receives an annual $450,000 for its Malaysian programs, which assist “political parties and their associated think tanks in being effective representatives of their constituencies”. Contrary to what one would expect from a civil society group, the IRI is led not by peace activists and community leaders, but high-level US politicians. IRI is chaired by conservative Senator John McCain, who has taken extremely aggressive positions in favor of US conflicts overseas and has staunchly supported Israel; vice chairman Richard S. Williamson served in senior foreign policy positions under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; treasurer J. William Middendorf II served as Secretary of the US Navy and was one of the architects of the deeply unpopular North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

IRI’s president, Lorne Craner served as Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the US State Department. “IRI works in countries important to U.S. interests, where we can make a difference… IRI focuses on three tasks: helping political parties broaden their appeal, ensuring that they rule justly once elected and aiding civil society in guaranteeing good governance… IRI can help catalyze the efforts of democratic activists in a country -- so long as they want change more than we want it for them,” writes Craner in a statement on IRI’s official website. According to the NED’s website, IRI received $802,122 in 2010 to work with “state leaders in Penang and Selangor to provide them with public opinion research, training and other resources to enable them to be more effective representatives of their constituents”. IRI claims that it “does not provide direct funding to political parties” in Malaysia, but their lack of transparency, significant budget and emphasis on helping broaden the appeal of political parties in opposition-held states suggests at the very minimum that funding is taking place indirectly.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim photographed at the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award ceremony in 2007 alongside IRI President Lorne Craner, NED President Carl Gershman, NDI Board Member Tom Daschle, NDI President Ken Wollack, and others.  
NED's Statement of Principles and Objectives, adopted in 1984, asserts that ‘No Endowment funds may be used to finance the campaigns of candidates for public office.’ But the ways to circumvent the spirit of such a prohibition are not difficult to come up with; as with American elections, there's ‘hard money’ and there's ‘soft money’,” writes William Blum, historian and former US State Department employee. The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs receives $285,000 for their Malaysian projects, which include promoting “openness and accountability in government by building political and civic organizations, safeguarding elections, and promoting citizen participation.” Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, who has been a cheerleader for American exceptionalism and NATO militarism, chairs NDI. In addition, former US Senator Thomas Daschle and Kenneth Wollack, former legislative director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), both have high positions in the NDI. According to the NDI’s official website, it conducts “state-level parliamentary workshops in Selangor and Penang” because “opposition parties have had limited experience in government, many of the parliamentarians elected in 2008 lacked a fundamental understanding of parliamentary processes and of representing constituent concerns.” 

The following text was amended and removed from NDI’s description of its programs, and no longer appears as of 2013: “In 2006, NDI conducted a workshop for BERSIH that focused on improving the action plans of each participating organization or political party. In 2007, NDI and BERSIH conducted a series of workshops in the politically neglected provinces of Sabah and Sarawak to educate previously disenfranchised political aspirants.” The New York Times in its 2011 article, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings,” reported that “a small core of American government-financed organizations were promoting democracy in authoritarian Arab states” and that “the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known,” specifically mentioning the training efforts provided by the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.

Both active and former US politicians who represent the foreign policy of the United States government control these institutions – they award generous grants on behalf of the US taxpayer to organizations that are consistent with their objectives. Malaysia’s opposition parties have received training from US-government linked foundations such as the IRI and NDI. Anwar Ibrahim has participated in NED programs and maintains cordial relations with its president, Carl Gershman. As the United States shifts its economic and military focus to the Asia Pacific region, it has channeled millions into “democracy promotion” to nurture the emergence of friendly regimes in the region to serve its own strategic interests. Interestingly enough, the NED does not conduct operations in countries that have close relations with the United States, despite having less democratic environments than that of Malaysia, like in Qatar or Singapore. Civilian movements that promote democratic participation and media transparency in countries like South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Japan are also completely ignored by the NED and the US political establishment. 

Revelations that the Malaysian government paid American columnists to smear the image of Anwar Ibrahim in the US media have enraged Malaysians far and wide. These realities are regrettable, but why are many unwilling to scrutinize the flipside – recipients of US funds who smear the BN in their writings? Why are Malaysian dissident opinions perceived to be valid when the US funds these figures, while anti-Anwar positions are illegitimate when Malaysia funds writers who hold those views? Moreover, why is there a lack of interest in the most militaristic nation on earth spending millions to “bring liberty to the land,” as touted by the International Republican Institute? While it may be journalistically irresponsible to make accusations of plots and destabilization, the millions spent training and cultivating opposition parties is proof that the United States has a post-Najib agenda of its own.

This article appeared on Free Malaysia Today.

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He covers a wide range of international issues and is not affiliated with any political party. He can be reached