Government and opposition leaders in South and Southeast Asia cheered Mahathir Mohamad and his Malaysian opposition bloc on Thursday after it pulled off a stunning general election victory by ousting a coalition that had led Malaysia for 61 years.
Exiled former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra fired off a series of positive comments on his official Twitter account, praising Mahathir for his “spectacular comeback.”
Mahathir, who governed Malaysia for more than two decades, took his oath Thursday night and became the Muslim-majority nation’s seventh prime minister.
“The power of the people has spoken loud and clear that they do not only remember his outstanding legacy but needed his leadership,” said Thaksin, who was Thailand’s prime minister from 2001 until he was overthrown in a military coup in September 2006.
“I am certain that all the Thai people share my sentiment and respect towards him,” Thaksin said.
He said Mahathir’s leadership, ideas and vision “would undoubtedly reinvigorate” the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional political and economic bloc that includes Malaysia and Thailand.
Cecep Hidayat, a political science lecturer at the University of Indonesia, agreed with Thaksin’s comments that Mahathir’s “outward-looking” leadership would benefit Malaysia at the ASEAN forum.
“Mahathir will be more flexible and very active in his foreign policy,” Cecep told BenarNews. “Malaysia can be great again in Asia, perhaps more popular than Indonesia.”
Mahathir, 92, led the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) before stepping down in 2003. He emerged from retirement and joined the opposition in 2016, expressing anger over a corruption scandal at the state-owned investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, which was headed by his former protégé, Najib Razak, who has denied any wrongdoing.
Bobby Rizaldi, a member of the Indonesian parliament, described Mahathir’s triumph as “extraordinary” and said the Malaysian leader could have an impact Jakarta’s ongoing battle with illegal drugs smuggled to destination countries through the porous border.
Authorities seized at least 45 tons of methamphetamine in East and Southeast Asia in 2014, during police operations in Malaysia, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries, according to the 2016 report of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
“Many of drugs come from Malaysia [as a transit country] to Indonesia,” Rizaldi told BenarNews. “How committed is Mahathir to solving the border issue?”
Election provides vehicle for change, activists say
In Thailand, pro-democracy activist Rangsiman Rome, a key leader of the Democracy Restoration Group (DRG), said Mahathir’s victory proved that elections were a good vehicle to give people the opportunity to correct their own mistakes.
“To have elections once every four years allows the voters to review how their choices worked and to not repeat the mistake,” Rangsiman told BenarNews. “It is sad that Thailand remains under the military junta, while Malaysia had an election. What a contrast.”
Malaysia holds its general elections every five years.
Thai activists, including DRG, last week announced plans to launch protest rallies against the Thai junta later in May to mark the fourth anniversary of a coup that toppled Thaksin’s sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Meanwhile, Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, Thailand’s chief representative in talks with insurgents in the Deep South, expressed confidence that Mahathir would continue Malaysia’s support for the Thai peace process.
“There might be some effects when government changes,” he told BenarNews. “I believe the new government would follow through with peace talks because it is a non-violent method.”
Ruckchart Suwan, president of the Thai NGO Buddhist Network for Peace, agreed with the general’s comments.
“I believe there is no effect on the peace-talk process because both countries do realize its importance. But I am not sure about whether the mediator would be changed,” he said, referring to Malaysia’s Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, the facilitator of the peace negotiations.
In Bangkok, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, Thailand’s deputy prime minister for security affairs, told reporters bilateral relations would not be altered by the government shift in Kuala Lumpur.
“The opposition won the election, but there should not be drastic change to cause troubles,” he said.
In Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, said his country looked forward to developing an “equally constructive relationship” with Mahathir.
“As Malaysia’s closest neighbor, we have a vested interest in Malaysia’s stability and prosperity,” Lee said on his Facebook page.
In Bangladesh, Delwar Hossain, the director-general of the foreign ministry’s external relations wing, told BenarNews that diplomatic relations would remain tight under a new Malaysian government led by Mahathir.
“Elections and change of government are part of democratic process,” he said. “We are committed to working with any government in Malaysia.”
Mahbubur Rahman, a senior official of the opposition Bangladesh National Party, described Mahathir’s triumphant return to politics as “a big lesson for us and the whole world.”
“He punished Anwar Ibrahim but he aligned with his foe for the sake of democracy and the people,” he said, referring to Mahathir’s jailed former political enemy turned ally. “The victory of the opposition once again proves that people are sovereign and supreme.”
Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka, Tria Dianti in Jakarta, Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok and Mariyam Ahmad in Pattani, Thailand, contributed to this report.