Powerful lessons from Bosnia


This country provides education for tourists today, with architectural wonders among stunning mountainous terrain and its bewilderingly complex socio-politics.

“WHAT did you do for Bosnia, and why?”

Researching a country before visiting is a basic responsibility, and after receiving an invitation to join a Malaysian delegation to Bosnia and Herzegovina and speak at the Sarajevo Business Forum, I thought it would be helpful to hear from the man who did the most to raise awareness about Bosnia among Malaysians.

The 96-year-old former prime minister reiterated what he said in his many speeches beginning in 1993, encapsulated by this excerpt that now stands on a monument to Mahathir bin Mohamad in a park in Sarajevo: “Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia must be stopped or those who utter empty words about democracy and human rights must forever renounce all claims to justice and fairness.”

That is typical (Tun) Dr Mahathir of course, but as I quickly discovered, the gratitude is real, and he is the only Malaysian that most Bosnians have ever heard of.

Dr Mahathir mentioned that his assistance went beyond words and diplomatic efforts, explaining the convoluted ways in which Malaysian officials helped to bring weapons and ammunition to the Bosnian resistance.

All this, he implied, forced the West to recognise the genocide, work out a peace deal and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Those with a cursory knowledge of the subject (such as myself before this visit) might place Malaysian support for Bosnia in the same category as our support for other Muslim communities facing oppression around the world, but Bosnia is different for two main reasons.

Firstly, the support was unusual in its extent, involving not just arms and diplomatic efforts, but also the education and settlement of Bosnians in Malaysia. Indeed, many emerging figures in Bosnian politics, diplomacy, business and civil society today are alumni of the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) in particular. They will chart their country’s future.

Secondly – and this was the part that really upturned previous assumptions – the “Muslim” identity in Bosnia is loaded with a profoundly unique history. It should be a given that Muslims around the world are different, of course: even among the Sunni mazhab or schools of thought there are differences that some Malaysian Muslims would find radical – for example, affectionate petting of dogs which is commonplace among Hanafis but anathema to most Shafi’is.

So, even more so of Muslims in a land that once had its own Christian Church, converted to Islam by the Ottomans who also hosted Orthodox and Jewish communities, then administered by the majority Catholic Austro-Hungarians, then part of the Kingdom and subsequently Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia before the 1992-1995 war killed over 100,000 people: 8,000 in the genocide at Srebrenica.

This long history provides education for tourists today, with architectural wonders abounding among stunning mountainous terrain, but the country’s socio-politics remains bewilderingly complex.

The Dayton Agreement of 1995 – essentially creating the country’s constitution – has long been credited with maintaining peace, but the Bosnian political science students I spoke to showed great frustration with it.

Just for starters, the country is called Bosnia and Herzegovina and comprised two entities: the confusingly-named Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, but there’s also another self-governing bit called Brko District.

The presidency rotates around three people – a Bosniak and Croat elected from the Federation and a Serb elected from the Republika – making explanations of Malaysia’s rotating monarchy very simple by comparison.

Thankfully, much power is decentralised – but not equally!

As one Malaysian puts it, it’s easier to do business in the Republika where decision-making is more centralised than in the Federation, where many layers of government means more approvals... and potential for corruption.

On that point, the younger politicians I spoke to all recognised the problem, vowing to be different, and I could not help but recall similar passion among their Malaysian equivalents, fighting what they see as an ossified political system dominated by an old guard who still feels entitled to govern.

More optimistic is the fact that people have freedom of expression and aren’t afraid to use it. They joke about how useless their politicians are, and have serious debates about joining the EU and Nato (support for both is extremely high, and one student was shocked to learn that many Malaysians support Putin just because he is anti-West).

In wishing my new Bosnian friends the very best, I told them to avoid what happened to Malaysia, where there was a former prime minister who was not the best friend of civil society and democratic institutions, and the damage caused is still being felt now, as later leaders inherited those massive powers, and able to distort check and balances.

“What was his name?” they asked.

See other highlights of the writer’s Bosnia trip on Instagram @tz.n9. Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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