Questions for Najib over a Missing Model

An alleged kidnapping complicates the life of the Malaysian premier, UMNO and the country's royalty

To Malaysia's indefatigable bloggers, that has called up more than two years of allegations that Najib, as deputy prime minister, had been involved in the gruesome murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a then-28-year Mongolian translator and jilted lover of his best friend, political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda. 

Asia Sentinel

It may well have been Najib Tun Razak's worst nightmare. On his first state trip abroad, Malaysia's new prime minister had gone to Indonesia to discuss such weighty matters as bilateral cooperation on energy, trade, defense, agriculture and the thousands of illegal Indonesian migrants that Malaysia has been trying to send home.

Instead, Najib was beseiged at a joint press conference with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with a story that has been burning up the newspapers, wires, gossip magazines, the internet and jungle telegraph. Legions of reporters from both Malaysia and Indonesia demanded to know what he knew about the alleged kidnapping of a beautiful Indonesian-American model, Manohara Odelia Pinot and when he knew it. Najib was forced to answer that he had no comment.

At about the same time he was meeting with Yudhoyono, Daisy Fajarina, the mother of the missing model, held a hysterical press conference at the National Comission on Violence Against Women in Jakarta to sob that Malaysian authorities had stopped her from visiting the country to check on her daughter's condition, and to say that Manohara had met Tengku Temenggong Muhammad Fakhry, the Kelantan crown prince, at a gala dinner in Kuala Lumpur put on by Najib when Manohara was only 14. Then she fainted.

To Malaysia's indefatigable bloggers, that has called up more than two years of allegations that Najib, as deputy prime minister, had been involved in the gruesome murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a then-28-year Mongolian translator and jilted lover of his best friend, political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda. Like Altantuya, Manohara was a jet-setting beauty, rated one of Indonesia's 100 most precious women by Harper's Bazaar Magazine at the age of 15.

Although Baginda was freed earlier this year by a high court under questionable circumstances, two of Najib's bodyguards were sentenced to death last month for the slaying, for which one of the two said they had been promised RM50,000 to RTM100,000. In a cautioned statement, the convicted murderer also said it was Mohd Musa Safri, Najib's chief of staff, who sent them to pick up Altantuya and two of her friends. No attempt was made in court to ask who had offered to pay the two policemen to kill her.

The murder suggested the involvement of higher authorities. Evidence that Altantuya and her two companions had ever entered the country had disappeared, according to testimony at the trial of the killers. No attempt was made by the prosecution, the defense or the judge to ask why. One of Altantuya's friends also testified that she had seen photographs of Baginda, the then-deputy prime minister and Altantuya together. Both the prosecution and the defense leapt to their feet to ask that the comment be stricken from the record.

With Fajarina saying Malaysia immigration authorities had refused to allow her and Manohara's sister into the country, that immediately spurred questions of how that happened. Malaysian authorities later relented this week and said they would let the mother into the country as temperatures rose in Indonesia, with the threat that it could turn into a diplomatic squabble. There was no indication, however, if authorities would help her meet her daughter.  The family has asked for a meeting on neutral ground, perhaps Singapore.

Nor are the unpleasant associations for Najib the only problem. The alleged kidnapping, which took place in Saudi Arabia by the prince on Feb. 26, poses problems for the United Malays National Organisation, which Najib heads.

That is because, starting in January, UMNO manufactured a crisis over alleged insults to Raja Azlan Shah, the Sultan of Perak, whom the opposition wants to sue over his decision to name an UMNO chief minister in the state after three lawmakers aligned with the Pakatan Rakyat, the national opposition coalition, quit and reduced the Perak legislature to a 28-28 tie.

The opposition, which won the statehouse in national elections a year ago, refused to give up power. Karpal Singh, an Indian lawyer and national chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party, announced he would sue the sultan for what the DAP regarded as an illegal action.

That kicked off an inflated political crisis in which more than 100 UMNO members filed police reports charging Karpal with insulting the sultan, and quickly spread to widespread complaints among ethnic Malays that the country's other two major races, Indians and Chinese, weren't sufficiently deferential to the Malay loyalty.

The sultans themselves got into the act, with the Kedah Royal Household Association asking the Conference of Rulers to seek the restoration of immunity to ensure that "certain parties" would not "belittle the Malay rulers who are the pillars and protectors of the strength of the Malays."

So what do they do now if they discover they have an alleged royal child-marrying kidnaper and wife-beater in their midst?

Daisy Fajarina, Manohara's mother, told an amazing tale, in which Manohara had fled back to Indonesia at least once, accusing the prince of domestic violence. She returned to her husband, however, as battered women, especially young ones, are wont to do.

Fajarina, who had left Manohara's American father and married a French citizen, told a packed news conference that the prince had taken the family in his private jet to Saudi Arabia for the umrah, or minor haj. But as they waited to return to Asia, the prince bundled Manohara into the plane, shut the door and flew away, leaving an astonished Fajarina and her other daughter, Dewi, standing on the tarmac, and flew away.

Despite repeated attempts to contact the daughter in Kedah, Fajarina was refused permission, including being stopped by Malaysia's immigration authorities, she said. Later, she said, her son-in-law's family offered her a million-dollar apartment if she would cut all contact with her daughter.

"Even if they offer me the world, I cannot accept it, Manohara is irreplaceable," she said, choking back tears. "I just want them to give back my daughter."

In Indonesia, Manohara's fate has consumed readers of tabloid newspapers, TV, Web sites and blogs, making the relatively unknown beauty a household name.  The Jakarta Social Blog said the girl "calls Cannes her home and Jakarta her ‘new' home." She is said to love "Roberto Cavalli dresses, Christian Louboutin shoes, Birkin bags, Audemars Piguet and Roger Dubuis watches just to name a few. A close source said that Manohara is extremely down-to-earth, unlike any other women you see toting Birkins on Louboutin heels, "She is beautiful, outside and inside."