KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- Representatives of 114 countries began gathering in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur Tuesday for the 13th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), predicted to rally most of the developing world behind a formal declaration against the prospect of war against Iraq.
"It will certainly be about our anti-war stance, that war is not the solution to international conflicts," said Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, the NAM's host and new chairman.
The Iraq crisis seems likely to provide a new focus for the NAM, an organization, which was in danger of losing its way after the end of the Cold War that inspired its origin in 1961.
Over fifty heads of government including leaders of India, Pakistan and South Africa, will take part in the summit, which opens formally this week. The NAM summit will be followed immediately by a special summit of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), also chaired by Malaysia's Dr Mahathir. The OIC is also expected to issue a formal appeal for the Bush administration to back away from war.
"We have a duty, responsibility and conscience to oppose war," said Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. "They (the Americans) know that even their friends are not with them on this issue."
But the NAM summit can expect some strong arguments, with debate over the prospects of China being invited to join the organization, and India pressing for a strong statement from the summit against terrorism.
"Terrorism should be taken up by the NAM in a very important way, without any reservations on regions or religion," said India's High Commissioner to Malaysia, Mrs. Veena Sikri.
But India too sees the NAM as an organization that can provide a counter-weight against U.S. domination of world affairs as the sole remaining superpower, a situation described by NAM members as uni-polar world.
"NAM is not a movement of passive neutrality but a search for autonomy in decision-making by newly independent countries. It is even more relevant in a uni-polar world than in the bipolar world of the Cold war," Mrs. Sikri told an audience at a pre-summit seminar on the NAM organized by Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS).
Radicals in the NAM see the organization working with European countries and China to build a massive weight of world opinion against war in Iraq, and thus provide a future basis for balancing American political and economic predominance. Moderates, like Malaysia, think the NAM is too large and organization and too divided to agree on much beyond some basic principles like economic development and equity, and a firm stance against war.
"Solidarity of the NAM is a tall order, given the different interests and wide regional differences," one of the summit organizers, Malaysia Ambassador to the United Nations Hasmi Agam told the ISIS seminar. "But we all believe in a multi-polar world, working through multilateral rules rather than the unilateralism we have seen recently. The NAM needs to build a higher profile internationally, and the chairman of the NAM should interact more directly with other international players like the G8 group."
That is a role that seems tailor made for Malaysia's outspoken Dr Mahathir, who steps down as prime minister in October and will then become a full-time chairman of the NAM and the OIC. A strong critic of Western-dominated globalization and an early advocate of 'Asian values,' Dr Mahathir's success in steering Malaysia through the 1997 Asian economic crisis has given him strong credentials as a spokesman for the developing world and for a more moderate, modernizing form of Islam. The NAM and OIC promise to be an important platform for him in the future.
The five founding members of the NAM, Egypt, India, Ghana, Yugoslavia and Indonesia, claimed 40 years ago to be seeking political room between the two superpowers. As its membership swelled, the NAM became increasingly a forum for developing countries with three main goals of decolonization, development and disarmament.
Malaysia, a largely Islamic nation of 23 million people with large Chinese and Indian minorities, is one of the most prosperous and best educated of developing nations. It boasts a booming private manufacturing sector and oil and gas exports worth almost $7 billion a year.