“Every day we see videos of children dying, mothers crying, buildings being bombed,” university student Amin Syukri told This Week in Asia. “What will it take for world leaders to stop this madness?”
Wearing hijabs in the Palestinian tricolour, a group of women offered their solidarity to mothers in besieged Gaza.
“It’s so hard to see them go through all this. We feel so helpless watching from afar, this is the least we can do,” Latifah Abdul Rahim said.
Organised by the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement, co-founded by Anwar in 1971, the gathering of more than 20,000 eclipsed last Sunday’s 10,000-strong protest at the country’s Independence Square.
The United States’ embassy in Kuala Lumpur has also been a target for demonstrations that are critical of Washington’s unequivocal backing of Israel.
The siege of the strip of land home to 2.3 million people followed the deadly assault by Hamas militants which killed around 1,400 Israelis, most of those civilians.
But Anwar’s position is unmoved, as he takes a leadership role on the issue among Southeast Asian nations, with an eye on a domestic dividend among an increasingly decisive Muslim electorate.
“I received a lot of criticism and threats. I tell them, you picked on the wrong person,” Anwar said at Tuesday’s rally. “Don’t ever threaten Malaysians, we have our right to express ourselves. We condemn aggression.”
The prime minister had written in a Facebook post earlier on Tuesday calling for a ceasefire to end the “tyranny, misery and suffering that has been experienced all this time”.
He repeated his earlier plea at the rally, saying, “We are not asking for anything extra. We want the Arabs, the Palestinians, the people of Gaza to be treated as human beings. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“Yes … [I know there are] many risks. I don’t have any choice as there is killing of young children and women,” the prime minister said.
“There is consensus about the humanitarian issue in Gaza,” he said.
As the days of shuttle diplomacy continue, Anwar also brought the Palestinian issue to Ankara where he met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and later to President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Egypt.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Hamas holds the same status as Islamic State, and “no leader should meet them, no country should harbour them and those that do should be sanctioned”.
Yet the United Nations does not designate the Palestinian organisation as a terrorist group, clearing Malaysia of legal blowback, according to geopolitics expert Hoo Chiew Ping at the East Asian International Relations Caucus.
“This means it’s not wrong for the Islamic countries believing in the Palestinian cause supporting Hamas,” Hoo told This Week in Asia.
Malaysia’s support for Hamas should not be misconstrued as a blanket leniency on terrorism, she said, referencing its backing of Philippine government actions in Marawi against Islamic State group in 2017.
Anwar’s connection to the Palestinian cause draws back to his days as a student leader in the 1970s, said political analyst James Chin from Tasmania University, adding that it was also an opportunity for Anwar to show his diplomatic prowess to a domestic audience.
“It is both a political opportunity and something he really believes in,” Chin told This Week in Asia.
But risks pave the way ahead at a time of intense diplomatic division.
Political analyst Oh Ei Sun argues that Anwar – who is also finance minister – “should take care of domestic concerns first”, in light of the drop in the value of the Malaysian ringgit to an all-time low since the 1997 Asian economic crisis.
There may also be a steep price to be paid for supporting Palestine as the war worsens, including to Malaysia’s investment ambitions.
Western companies who have taken a pro-Israeli stance could choose to defer their trade with or investments in Malaysia, Oh said.
Anwar has in recent weeks met leaders of 15 Fortune 500 companies in the US, including Airbnb, Amazon, Amazon Web Services, Boeing, ConocoPhillips and Kimberly-Clark, hoping to woo them into investing in Malaysia.
“So it remains to be seen to what extent the Malaysian economy, which relies heavily on foreign trade and investments, could be impacted as such,” Oh said.
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