Malaysian PM Leads Large Pro-Palestine Rally in Kuala Kumpur

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Malaysian PM Leads Large Pro-Palestine Rally in Kuala Kumpur

Anwar Ibrahim’s staunchly anti-Israel position is unlikely to impact his government’s relations with its closest Western partners.

Malaysian PM Leads Large Pro-Palestine Rally in Kuala Kumpur

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim addresses a pro-Palestine rally at the Axiata Arena in Kuala Lumpur, October 24, 2023.

Credit: X/Anwar Ibrahim

Yesterday evening, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim led a large rally to condemn Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip, the latest sign of support for the Palestinian cause in recent weeks.

More than 16,000 protesters attended the rally at the indoor Axiata Arena in Kuala Lumpur, Channel News Asia reported, and were made up of “participants from all ages and all walks of life, including students, professionals, refugees, religious leaders, and politicians.”

With a Palestinian keffiyeh draped around his shoulders, bearing an image of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, Anwar described the Israeli response as “the height of barbarism in this world,” and said that support from the United States and Europe was contributing to the bloodshed.

“It’s a level of insanity to allow people to be butchered, babies to be killed, hospitals to be bombed, and schools to be destroyed,” Anwar told the crowd, which waved Palestinian flags and held up signs reading “Stop the War” and “Free Palestine.”

The rally was the latest in a string of protests that have taken place in the country since the Israeli attacks, which are estimated to have killed thousands of Palestinians. The assault follows the October 7 attacks by militants from the Islamist group Hamas, who penetrated far into southern Israel and massacred more than 1,400 people, including civilians, according to Israeli government figures.

The Gazan Ministry of Health claims that around 5,100 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli attacks since October 7, though its casualty figures have been in some instances hotly contested.

Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, Malaysia has refused to denounce the Hamas atrocities, arguing that they must be seen in the context of decades of Israeli occupation. Indeed, the government has been vocal not just in its support of Palestine but also of Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2006. On October 16, Anwar held a call with Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, during which he expressed Malaysia’s unwavering support for the Palestinian people.

This has put it out of step with the mainstream of Western opinion, which even before this month’s attacks, viewed Hamas as a terrorist organization. But Anwar said at last night’s rally that while he had been pressured by Western partners to tone down his criticism of the Israeli government following the war in Gaza, he would “not be cowed.”

“Malaysia is a fiercely independent country. We decide what is right. We understand the meaning of freedom,” Anwar said at the rally. “We are with the Palestinian people in their struggle. Yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

“I will not be cowed and will remain steadfastly behind the Palestinian people,”

Anwar’s stance is unsurprising, given the broad support that the Palestine issue enjoys among the Malay Muslim majority, which has underpinned successive governments’ sustained support, and refusal to recognize the State of Israel. Indeed, as Rashvinjeet S. Bedi wrote for Channel News Asia, Israel-Palestine is one of the few issues around which the country’s increasingly fractious and polarized political class can be expected to unify. A rally on October 13 was attended by former prime ministers Muhyiddin Yassin and Mahathir Mohamad, as well as leaders from the Islamic party PAS, the majority ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party, and a number of members of Anwar’s cabinet.

In the context of domestic politics, this makes the Israel-Palestine something of a no-brainer for Anwar, who is vulnerable to being outflanked on the right by the Malay nationalist opposition coalition. It is for this reason, and Malaysia’s consistency on this issue over many years, that the wide gulf between Malaysia and its Western partners on the Israel-Palestine question, and Kuala Lumpur’s continued engagement with Hamas, is unlikely to have much impact on the country’s diplomatic relationships.

“We know that the Americans don’t like it but they will understand why [Anwar] is doing it – to show his position in the Muslim community,” James Chin of the University of Tasmania told Bedi. “By and large, there won’t be any blowback at all. Everybody knows it is political posturing and it is not only him who is doing it. Indonesian groups are doing it as well. It is not something new or unexpected.”