Malaysia's decision to not accede to the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has snowballed into a massive fiasco, with claims that "people with vested interests" were manipulating the issue to pit the Malay rulers against the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government and bring down the administration.
In an interview on Saturday, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said that the government's U-turn on ratifying the Rome Statute was a political move made to avoid a coup attempt. He said the issue could be "manipulated to the extent that people go to the streets, moved by the 'deep state' and certain apparatus".
Datuk Saifuddin declined to clarify what he meant by "deep state". It generally refers to secretive elements of a country's security and bureaucratic establishments working to undermine the legitimate government.
Malaysia last Friday announced that it is nixing the ratification of the Rome Statute, a month after the treaty was signed in support of the world's war tribunal, which has jurisdiction over genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression.
It came after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's administration bore the full brunt of verbal attacks by opponents - including opposition politicians and the Johor palace - who claimed the treaty would render Malay rulers irrelevant and impact the status of Malays and Islam in Malaysia.
Under the Rome Statute, the ICC is able to probe and prosecute in situations where states are "unable" or "unwilling" to do so themselves.
In response to his critics, Tun Dr Mahathir accused "one particular person who wants to be free to beat up people" and some of silently benefiting from the alleged misdeeds of his predecessor Najib Razak. "... that is the reason why they were silent then, but now actively wanting to defend the rights of the Malays apparently," he was quoted as saying by Malay Mail Online last Friday.
Asked if he was indirectly making a jibe at a member of the royal family from a southern state, Dr Mahathir said: "You can make your guess. You are welcome."
The government's U-turn has been criticised by civil society groups."This is troubling because it creates the impression that Malaysia is ruled by racial and religious sentiments, not by universal standards of justice," the G25 group of eminent Malays said yesterday.
Associate Professor Awang Azman Awang Pawi of Universiti Malaya said: "In a country where special rights exist, PH should have been ready to educate Malaysians, especially the Malays, on sensitive issues like the Rome Statute and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), as it indirectly touches on special privileges.
"Failing to do so can cause serious backlash due to confusion that derives from incorrect information. This may then lead PH to lose popularity, no matter how pure or sincere their intention is."
Human rights legal adviser Andrew Yong said that when discussing international treaties like the Rome Statute and ICERD, it is "important to recognise that domestic law and international law are each separate and operate in their own spheres".
Under Malaysia's Constitution, the king and rulers can be prosecuted for crimes, but only in a special court, with the permission of the Attorney-General.
"Heads of state generally do enjoy immunity under international law, but this does not apply, generally, in cases of international crimes such as genocide, war crimes and other crimes against humanity," said Mr Yong in a Facebook post yesterday.
The Johor palace had been a frequent critic of the pact, with Johor Crown Prince, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, saying Malay rulers could fall victim to "orchestrated war crimes" by those wanting to see the fall of the country's royal institution.
Yesterday, his father, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, thanked the government for listening to the people and withdrawing from the treaty. "I would like to say 'thank you' for also respecting and accepting the views of the Conference of Rulers," he said in his Facebook post.