Obama to meet Malaysian civil society groups, including those critical of govt: Activists

A Pos Malaysia Postal services employee poses with the special commemorative cover to mark US President Barack Obama's visit to Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur, on April 25, 2014. Mr Obama will meet representatives of a range of civil-society groups -
A Pos Malaysia Postal services employee poses with the special commemorative cover to mark US President Barack Obama's visit to Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur, on April 25, 2014. Mr Obama will meet representatives of a range of civil-society groups - including some which have harshly criticised Malaysia's government - when he visits the country this weekend, activists said. -- PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - United States President Barack Obama will meet representatives of a range of civil-society groups - including some which have harshly criticised Malaysia's government - when he visits the country this weekend, activists said.

Mr Obama aims to strengthen ties with Muslim-majority Malaysia when he arrives on Saturday for a two-night stay, the first visit by a serving US president since 1966.

But he also will meet briefly on Sunday with nine leading activists and a Christian leader, said Mr Farouk Musa, head of a moderate Muslim group and one of the invitees.

The activists will include representatives of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, known in Malaysia as "Bersih" ("clean"), an election reform movement whose supporters have clashed with authorities in huge recent protests.

The US has offered praise for Malaysia as a moderate Muslim, multi-faith country.

But Human Rights Watch on Friday urged Mr Obama to "speak loudly" on rights in Malaysia, whose 57-year-old Muslim-dominated ruling coalition is accused by critics of clamping down on opponents and presiding over worsening religious intolerance.

"President Obama needs to take up concerns that basic rights are under threat, and that civil society is squeezed between restrictive laws and abusive government implementation," said Mr John Sifton, the group's Asia advocacy director.

Bersih has brought tens of thousands to the streets, most recently in April 2012, in a series of demonstrations in recent years to protest an electoral system which it says is rigged to keep the coalition in power.

Each of the three Bersih demonstrations resulted in violent clashes with the police.

In elections last year, the opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim won the majority of the popular vote for the first time ever but still failed to secure a parliamentary majority.

The US embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the meeting.

Activists said Mr Obama will also meet representatives of organisations including the Malaysian Human Rights Commission, the Council of Churches and a leading moderate Muslim group, among others.

Mr Sifton called on Mr Obama to meet Anwar, who faces five years in jail for a March sodomy conviction widely considered politically motivated.

US officials have said Mr Obama will not meet Anwar, who is free on appeal, but that National Security Advisor Susan Rice would do so.