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Malaysian Army Accused Of Intimidating Voters Ahead Of Borneo State Polls

Indigenous rights champion Baru Bian denounces Malaysian armed forces' interference in Sarawak state polls - Vote buying for incumbent Chief Minister Taib Mahmud has started - Land rights, corruption and religious issues to dominate election campaign

KUCHING, MALAYSIA April 3, 2011 --/WORLD-WIRE/--. Two weeks ahead of polls in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo, the Malaysian armed forces have been accused of undue interference in the electoral process in favour of incumbent Abdul Taib Mahmud ("Taib"), the controversial head of state. Taib, who has just celebrated his 30th anniversary in power, is standing for another five-year-term on 16 April 2011 amid allegations of massive graft and abuse of power.

On Friday, indigenous rights champion Baru Bian, the Sarawak leader of the Justice Party (PKR), said army officials had threatened natives in the state's remote interior. According to Free Malaysia Today, the natives had been told their schools would be torn down if they did not vote for Taib in the upcoming state election. Baru also said that vote buying by Taib followers had started. Voters in rural constituencies had been offered RM500 (US$ 170) per family if they voted for Taib's Barisan Nasional coalition (BN).

Sarawak is a key battleground state in the intense power struggle between Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and the challenging Pakatan Rakyat coalition, which is being led by former deputy Prime Minister and PKR founder Anwar Ibrahim. Barisan Nasional has been in power ever since the formation of Malaysia in 1963.

The Sarawak state polls are widely looked upon as a referendum over 74-year-old Taib Mahmud who is not only Chief Minister but also Finance Minister as well as Planning and Resource Management Minister of the resource-rich East Malaysian state. The election campaign is dominated by land rights issues and by corruption allegations against the incumbent whose family has amassed billions of dollars during the past three decades.

Another sensitive issue is religion with the incumbent being a Muslim and his challenger, Baru Bian, a Christian. With a Christian population of over 42%, Sarawak differs significantly from the rest of Malaysia, a country that has Islam as its official religion. Many Sarawak natives, who are predominantly Christians, are resenting the fact that the state has been ruled by a Muslim Chief Minister since the 1960s and are fearing that their constitutional rights to freedom of religion are increasingly being infringed.

Recently, a row erupted over the seizure of 30'000 bibles by the Malaysian customs authorities. The bibles were later released stamped "for Christians only".

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