For the past few weeks, the top story coming out of Southeast Asia is the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the step-brother of Kim Jong-un, the ruler of North Korea. The assassination itself is still a mystery and does not follow the usual pattern employed by North Korea. For example, the two female assassins who sprayed the toxin on Kim Jong Nam’s face were not North Koreans but an Indonesian and a Vietnamese with no prior links to intelligence work. It will take a while yet before the entire story unravels.
One question that is often asked, but not adequately answered, is the issue of why Kim Jong Nam would travel to Malaysia often, and for this fatal trip, travel without bodyguards. There are credible reports that he has been travelling regularly to Malaysia since 2010, most probably because his relative, Jang Yong-chol, was the then DPRK ambassador to Malaysia. By all accounts, he should have stayed away from Malaysia after Yong-chol and his family were executed in December 2013 as part of the purge in Pyongyang.
What is not widely known, inside and outside Malaysia, is that there is a vibrant Korean community in Malaysia. There are approximately 15-20,000 Koreans living in Malaysia. The overwhelming number of them are South Koreans. In fact, the Korean community in Malaysia is large enough for two ‘Korean towns’ in the capital Kuala Lumpur – one in Ampang and the other one in Mont Kiara. Kuala Lumpur is also one of the few places with a full DPRK Embassy and, until a few years ago, you could catch a direct flight from Kuala Lumpur to Pyongyang on Air Koryo, North Korea’s official airline famed for using old Russian jetliners.
It is also not widely known that there are a few dozen North Koreans working in mining operations in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, arranged through a special deal between the governments of North Korea and the Sarawak state government. What is unusual about this deal is that the North Koreans can only work for that particular mining company and they cannot work elsewhere in Malaysia.
Malaysia has always been an unofficial sanctuary for all sorts of political operators not welcomed by their own governments. Many of these operators have used Malaysia as a base from which to carry on their activities, as a transit point or as a safe haven for some rest and recreation. Many of them are in fact wanted by their own governments.
There are numerous examples going back decades.
In the early 1960s, when a group of rebels linked to Partai Rakyat Brunei (the Brunei Peoples’ Party) failed to overthrow the Brunei Sultan, the rebel leadership was given sanctuary in Malaysia before they eventually moved to Indonesia. When Ferdinand Marcos was forced to flee to Hawaii in 1986, some of his children and immediate relatives relocated to Kuala Lumpur and some of them were enrolled in an international school there.
Members of the Cambodian royal family lived in Kuala Lumpur throughout the era when Cambodia was under the reign of the murderous Khmer Rouge (1975-1979). For the past decade, the daughter of late King Norodom Sihanouk has been the Cambodian Ambassador to Malaysia. During the 1994 political crisis in Cambodia, another of King Sihanouk’s sons was forced to flee to Malaysia first before leaving for France.
When the Maldives experienced political turmoil in the 1990s, several of their leading politicians moved their families to Malaysia. The most prominent of them was the Zaki family, owners of the Nazaki group in the Maldives. One family member ended up as the Maldives ambassador to Malaysia.
Since the late 1960s and 1970s, many leaders of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Pattani United Liberation Organization have lived openly in Malaysia. The MNLF, for a short period, even had a training camp in Sabah in the early 1970s. Many other groups operating in Mindanao have links to Sabah and many of their leaders even carry Malaysian identity cards.
Muslim separatists in Southern Thailand have always found sanctuary in the four northern Malay states. It is not uncommon for some members of the Malay community in Pattani to hold a Malaysian identity card in addition to Thai citizenship. In fact, one of the Pattani separatist leaders, who headed an outfit called ‘Bersatu’, was a lecturer at the International Islamic University in Gombak, Malaysia. When Wan Abdul Kadir Che Wan was exposed by the media in 2004, the university claimed they did not know his true identity. This was despite the fact that he was in regular contact with Malaysian security services who were acting as peace mediators in Southern Thailand.
Since the 1990s the operational headquarters of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM) was based in Kedah. In 2000, an Acehnese separatist leader, Teuku Don Zulfahri, was shot dead in Kuala Lumpur while having lunch. The leadership moved back to Aceh after peace was established due to the new political environment created by the tsunami in December 2004. There are still family ties between the factions in Aceh and Malaysia.
In more recent times, in the 1980s and 1990s, Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiyah lived openly in Johor for 17 years after the Suharto regime went after him. Bashir was not only a Malaysian permanent resident but he helped establish a religious school in Malaysia and hosted other Indonesian militants who were wanted by the Indonesian government.
In 2014, two Myanmar politicians, Aye Maung, a member of parliament, and Aye Thar Aung, the President of the Arakan League for Democracy, were fired upon by their countrymen in front of a hotel in Kuala Lumpur. It is widely known that the large Myanmar community (including the Rohingya) living in Malaysia includes some political exiles who are still active in Myanmar politics.
The most recent political exile operating openly in Malaysia is Dr Zakir Naik, the controversial Indian Islamic evangelist who operates an outfit called the Islamic Research Foundation. He has been accused by the Indian and Bangladeshi governments of inspiring young people to join Islamic State (IS). He has been denied entry to several Western countries, including the UK and Canada, for hate speech. Zaik is not only welcomed in Malaysia but he was given Malaysian permanent residency in record time. Earlier in 2013, the Malaysian government conferred a Ma’al Hijrah Distinguished Personality award to Naik. The award was personally presented to Naik by the King of Malaysia. The latest report coming out of Malaysia suggests that he has established a new office in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital. This would not have happened without the support of the Malaysian government.
So what does this all mean? It means that we should not be surprised that political assassinations take place in Malaysia occasionally. Kim travelled in and out of Malaysia because Malaysia has a long history of allowing political exiles from other countries freedom to come into the country. There was also a sizeable Korean community in Malaysia.
As long as Malaysia allows political exiles who are still active to live in Malaysia, political violence not related to Malaysia will occur on Malaysian soil. The Kim killing was not the first and will not be the last.
Professor James Chin is Director of the Asia Institute of Tasmania, University of Tasmania.
This article is published in collaboration with Policy Forum — Asia and the Pacific’s platform for policy analysis and discussion.