Democracy Lab

The Tangled Tale of Malaysia's Dirty Battleground State

How an ex-British prime minister’s sister-in-law, a headhunter’s grandson, dodgy PR firms, and a Malaysian kingpin are colliding in a fight over the future of democracy.

Clare Rewcastle-Brown could be doing a lot of other things with her retirement. She could be spending her days watching TV, tending her investments, or socializing. But instead she's operating a private shortwave radio service from a cramped office in downtown London. Her listeners are on the other side of the world, 6,500 miles away, in a place called Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.

"At least they can hear people being defiant," she says. "At least they can hear someone else saying what they've always thought."

Sarawak (pop. 2.5 million) is home to what were once some of the world's richest rain forests -- forests that are under threat, Rewcastle-Brown says, from the political and business interests that dominate the state. The head of the Sarawak state government, 76-year-old Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, has been in office since 1981. According to Bloomberg, at least four of the major companies that have received contracts or concessions from the government (thus allowing them to reap profits from the area's vast natural resources) are linked to his family. The Bruno Manser Fund, a Swiss-based charity devoted to the memory of an environmental activist who disappeared in Sarawak in 2000 while investigating illegal logging, asserts that Taib presides over a fortune of some $21 billion, which would make him the richest man in Asia. (He is, however, notably absent from the Forbes list of global billionaires.) A 2006 U.S. State Department cable published by WikiLeaks contains this sentence about Taib: "Embassy sources outside the government uniformly characterize him as highly corrupt."

Taib disputes such claims, of course. He says that the rain forest is doing fine, and denies exploiting his office for purposes of personal enrichment. Pictures from Google Earth tell a different story, suggesting that as little as 10 percent of the forest remains intact. Most of the damage is done by companies harvesting hardwood timber or clearing jungle to make way for lucrative palm oil plantations.

This is not a story that you will hear much about from the media in Sarawak itself -- or anywhere else in Malaysia, for that matter. That's because Taib is closely allied with the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that has ruled Malaysia since it achieved independence 55 years ago. Critics of the chief minister say that, three decades ago, he made a deal with the country's leaders to guarantee him a relatively free hand in Sarawak as long as he ensured them a generous share of the state's lucrative oil reserves and reliable political support.

That bargain has a direct bearing on the general election that Malaysia is preparing to conduct at some point within the next few weeks. During that time, Barisan Nasional (and its predecessor) presided over a remarkable economic success story -- but also a dark history of rigged votes and dirty tricks aimed at anyone that dared to oppose them. Perhaps most infamously, the government sent opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to jail from 1999 to 2004 on dubious charges of corruption and sodomy, then tried to prosecute him for sodomy again in 2008 (an effort that ended in an acquittal two years later). Now, after making steady inroads in the last few election cycles, Anwar's movement is making its strongest bid yet to break the government's hold on power.

One of the pillars of BN's hold over Malaysia's institutions has been Taib's political machine in Sarawak, which has reliably delivered a solid bloc of pro-government votes in parliamentary elections. Over the past few years the gradually emboldened opposition has chipped away at the government's majority elsewhere in Malaysia. But Anwar's forces have made little headway in Sarawak, where Taib's grip over the local media has proved nearly impossible to crack.

That's where Rewcastle-Brown (the second part of her last name derives from her marriage to ex-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's younger brother) comes in. She was actually born in Sarawak at the beginning of the 1960s, when it was still part of the British Empire. There's a long history of Brits in this slice of Southeast Asia. (Before it became a British possession in 1946, Sarawak was famous as the kingdom of the "White Rajahs," founded by Victorian adventurer James Brooke, who was given control over the place by the Sultan of Brunei in the mid-nineteenth century in return for his efforts to pacify its notorious pirates.) She left Sarawak at age eight, when her parents returned to England. After finishing university in London, she went into journalism, spending most of her career at the BBC World Service. But she seized every opportunity to return to Sarawak, a place that never quite let her go.

 Map courtesy of University of Texas

In 2010, partly at the urging of friends from Sarawak, Rewcastle-Brown started a blog, dubbed "Sarawak Report," that aimed to publicize Taib-sponsored destruction of the environment and the alleged culture of cronyism that supports it. She then upped the ante by creating her own radio station, which broadcasts under the name "Radio Free Sarawak" in the local languages of Malay and Iban. She doesn't know either language, but that's where her heavily tattooed colleague, known by his pseudonym as "Papa Orang Utan," comes in. (He's described by one British journalist as the "proud grandson of a Dayak headhunter.")

The Malaysian government didn't take long to retaliate. It quickly moved to finance a series of dubious PR efforts to discredit her, as part of its larger campaign aimed at the opposition movement led by Anwar's opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition. One company hired Texas-based conservative blogger Josh Trevino and a group of other American writers to come up with content designed to blacken the opposition. (Trevino heatedly denied working for the Malaysians when challenged on the same point back in 2011; a few weeks ago, he was compelled to retract his denial when paperwork emerged showing that he had indeed taken money from the Malaysian government.)

One product of the government PR effort was a sock-puppet website called "Sarawak Reports" (only that terminal "s" distinguishing it from Rewcastle-Brown's website), that featured content supporting Taib and attacked Rewcastle-Brown. (For his part Trevino denies any connection with the site. "The reality is that I didn't run Sarawak Reports," he says, noting that it wasn't among the sites for which he claimed responsibility in the papers he recently filed with the U.S. government for his other PR work for the Malaysian government.)

Taking on the powers-that-be in Sarawak requires a certain degree of grit. Rewcastle-Brown's website has had to cope with frequent denial-of-service attacks, while her radio broadcasts, if past practice is any indication, can expect to be heavily jammed come election time. Radio Free Sarawak's listeners, who call in from their mobile phones (sometimes climbing hills in the jungle to get proper reception), complain frequently of intimidation when they dare to protest government policies or resist illegal logging operations by well-connected local companies. One of Rewcastle-Brown's best sources, a former financial adviser to Taib named Ross Boyert, turned up dead under mysterious circumstances after spilling the beans on some of Taib's North American assets. (Officially the death was deemed a suicide.)

Rewcastle-Brown, who strews her stories with exclamation marks, admits that she's biased against a government she describes as a "soft dictatorship." "I believe in balance and objectivity," she says. "But if you can't have that, I believe you have to be honest about it. Yes, we are associated with the opposition. We'd love to be able to interview the government, but they won't come on. We've got lots of questions we could ask them." Though she expresses sympathy for Anwar's movement, she disavows any organizational links with it. The funding for her radio, she says, comes primarily from a single "European philanthropist" who wishes to remain anonymous; listeners also send donations through the website.

She believes that her radio station played a part in the losses suffered by Taib's party in the last Sarawak state election two years ago, when the opposition managed to win over a significant number of urban voters. The opposition certainly seems to think so: As the country gears up for the potentially epochal election, activists are busily handing out radios to people in the hard-to-reach Sarawak countryside. The people in villages already equipped with radios have taken to organizing their evenings around the broadcasts from London. (The photo above shows Iban tribesmen in the Sarawak village of Menyang, who count themselves among Radio Free Sarawak's biggest fans.)

The fight over an obscure patch of jungle might seem bemusing to many far-away readers. But it shouldn't be. As we are now painfully aware, the ecological impact of events in places in Sarawak can affect us all. At the same time, the story of Malaysia's approaching election (and Sarawak's role in it) is also worth watching. If the government loses, it will be a milestone for democracy in Southeast Asia and beyond. This is the country, after all, whose long-time prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, spent years assuring anyone who would listen that "Asian values" were incompatible with pluralism and democracy, which he dismissed as culturally specific Western exports. A defeat for the brand of Malaysian authoritarianism that Mahathir so long championed promises a refreshing renewal. And a new lease on life for the Sarawak rain forest wouldn't be a bad thing either.

This aricle has been updated to reflect Joshua Trevino's denial of involvement with the Sarawak Reports website.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Democracy Boondoggle in Iraq

The U.S. spent billions promoting democracy in Iraq. Now the official verdict is in: It was all for nothing.

Most Americans have pretty much forgotten about the war in Iraq by now. But the comforts of obliviousness are illusory. Iraq is just too important a country for that.

The experience in Iraq is also certain to have implications for many other areas of U.S. foreign policy that aren't necessarily confined to the Middle East. One of them involves the oft-discussed realm of "democracy promotion." American war aims in Iraq explicitly included toppling Saddam's one-party dictatorship and installing a new, more accountable form of government that would live in peace with its own people as well as its neighbors. There's a reason why the official American name for the war was Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

Washington took this mission seriously: "Securing and stabilizing a new democracy in Iraq and helping its economy grow were the foundational rationales behind the massive U.S. assistance effort." That quote comes from the final report, issued today (just in time for the tenth anniversary of the invasion), by the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR), a government watchdog set up by Congress to monitor how the $60 billion specifically allocated for the rebuilding of post-Saddam Iraq was actually spent. The SIGIR report, which lists a series of "lessons" for policymakers, is worth a look. (For those of you who don't have time to read all 186 pages, the main lessons are shown on p. xii.)

Perhaps the most interesting reading comes in a section entitled "Democracy and Civil Society." Altogether, the report notes, the United States spent $1.82 billion on measures specifically designed to strengthen democratic institutions, such as support for elections, drafting a new constitution, and promoting the growth of civil society groups. (That sum doesn't include funding for a range of other programs that arguably also had positive effects on democracy, such as efforts to improve governance, build the rule of law, and fight corruption.)

By way of comparison, the Congressional Research Service has estimated the overall direct costs of the war at $806 billion, but that doesn't include a whole series of war-related expenditures that probably make the actual bill much higher. (Some put it as high as $2 trillion.) And, of course, we shouldn't forget the cost in blood: Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths (with estimates ranging from 60,000 to ten times that) as well as combatant losses, including the deaths of 4,486 U.S. military personnel between 2003 and 2012.

So should Americans feel happy about the results? Well, the Special Inspector General does note that the Iraqis managed to carry off an impressive series of peaceable elections during the period in question, an achievement duly described as a "reconstruction success story." But that's pretty much where the good news ends. The SIGIR report notes, for example, that the State Department wasn't able to measure the impact of the grants it awarded for "democracy-building activities," which included things like offering advice to women's groups and teaching political parties how to garner votes.

What is clear is that over half of the money spent on such activities actually went to "security and overhead costs" -- a reflection of the constraints imposed by a nightmarish security situation that the occupiers and the Iraqi authorities were never quite able to tame. Elsewhere, similarly, the report bemoans the lack of "meaningful metrics" that might have helped us to understand how effective the programs actually were. As the authors put it:

Perhaps the problem lies in the nature of the program itself: how do you empirically capture the effects of civics training on the ability of a person to be a better citizen?

A good question. On the macro level, however, matters are somewhat clearer. In the most recent Freedom House survey of democracy around the world, Iraq falls unambiguously into the "Not Free" category. (Indeed, Iraq's rating on "civil liberties" is the same as the one Freedom House gives Iran.) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki now runs a staunchly authoritarian state that, while not quite as vicious as Saddam's old dictatorship, certainly doesn't hesitate to crack down on its opponents. The media are largely under government control, and the government is happy to swoop down and make its opponents disappear on the pretext of a vaguely defined "war on terror."

And yes, the local al Qaeda franchise is still active, blowing up people at random -- mostly, it would seem, for sectarian reasons: Maliki's ham-fisted rule is based on his roots in the country's Shiite majority, while al Qaeda still draws upon radical elements within the disenfranchised Sunni minority.

But enmity to al Qaeda is a poor predictor of loyalty to the United States, it turns out. All that American blood and treasure expended on his country has not exactly made Maliki a proxy of Washington -- far from it, indeed. Of late, Maliki has even made headlines by warning against a victory by the rebels in Syria; indeed, he's the only Arab leader who hasn't called upon Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign. (Iraq, it turns out, has even been offering sanctuary to Assad's soldiers, 48 of whom were killed inside Iraq yesterday when they were attacked by Iraqi guerrillas, perhaps from Al-Qaeda.)

Such positions should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the development of Maliki's pro-Iranian sympathies. Maliki's party enjoyed Iranian support long before the Americans helped bring him to power in Baghdad, and in the years since he has made a name for himself as a friend of Tehran.

So went wrong? Thomas Carothers, a democracy promotion expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, ticks off three "original sins" of the U.S. democracy-building effort in Iraq. The first, he says, was a focus on the minutiae of building democratic institutions (like a constitution and a parliament) at the expense of the bigger job of redesigning the fundamental political settlement in the country -- in other words, how power would actually be divided up among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. Carothers compares it to building a house for a group of mutually estranged people: If you invite them to occupy the new structure without addressing the reasons for their quarrel, they'll simply bring their fight into the house. "We were in a hurry," he says. Writing a new constitution was easier than a protracted negotiation about how to divide up power among the major constituents of Iraqi society.

A second problem was what Carothers calls the American "tendency to choose favorites and anoint them." Washington tended to prefer secular, English-speaking Iraqi politicians who seemed to be congenial to U.S. interests (starting with Pentagon protégé Ahmed Chalabi), and it did its best to put them in power and keep them there. Says Carothers: "That undercuts those who aren't in power, who start to think that you're not for democracy but just for your friends."

Finally, the third failing was Washington's assumption that removing Saddam would assure the Americans of continued political influence for years to come. As Carothers notes, though, "even occupying a country doesn't give you as much influence as you think." This error was compounded by the devastating American inability to comprehend Iraqi society in all of its complexity -- or to comprehend why the occupation was so despised.

A common view holds that you can't "install democracy at gunpoint." The Iraq War's defenders contend that the West succeeded in doing just that that in occupied Germany and Japan in the wake of World War II. What this argument usually overlooks is that post-1945 efforts were meticulously planned, took place under good security conditions, and marshaled the expertise of an entire generation of administrators and social scientists -- factors that certainly didn't apply to the U.S. state-building exercise in Iraq after 2003. Let's hope that Washington takes that lesson to heart. Not trying to remake other societies might be a good place to begin.

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images