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story.lead_photo.caption Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is interviewed in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on Monday.

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia -- Malaysia is looking to cancel multibillion-dollar Chinese-backed infrastructure projects signed by the previous scandal-tainted government as the country digs itself out of debt, Malaysia's prime minister said Monday.

During an extensive interview, Mahathir Mohamad also blasted Burma's treatment of Rohingya Muslims as "grossly unjust."

Mahathir, at 93 the world's oldest prime minister, spoke with The Associated Press days before he heads to Beijing for his first visit since returning to power in an electoral upset three months ago.

Mahathir said he wants to maintain good relations with China and welcomes its investment, as long as the projects benefit Malaysia. But he took his toughest stance yet on Chinese-backed energy pipelines and a rail project along peninsular Malaysia's eastern coast. Those deals were struck by his predecessor, Najib Razak.

The former prime minister, who remains in parliament but is barred from leaving the country, faces trial on multiple charges in the multibillion-dollar looting of the 1MDB state investment fund. He denies wrongdoing.

"We don't think we need those two projects. We don't think they are viable," Mahathir said from his office in Putrajaya. "So if we can, we would like to just drop the projects."

During his time in power, Najib drew Malaysia closer to China, which sees the Southeast Asian country as a key part of its One Belt, One Road global trade initiative. Najib reached deals for the 430-mile East Coast Rail Link and the two gas pipelines in 2016.

Malaysia's new government has already suspended work on the projects, being built by Chinese state-backed companies, and called for drastic cuts in their ballooning cost, which it estimates at more than $22 billion. Some of that money has already been paid and could be difficult to recoup.

If scrapping the projects altogether isn't possible, then Malaysia will need to at least put them on hold until the future, Mahathir said.

Mahathir also urged China to respect the free movement of ships throughout the South China Sea and reiterated his call for no warships to be based there.

China and multiple Southeast Asian nations, including Malaysia, have competing claims on South China Sea islands and reefs -- along with the rich fishing grounds and potential fossil fuel deposits around them.

"We are all for ships, even warships, passing through, but not stationed here," Mahathir said, adding that this included U.S. vessels.

China, which claims much of the sea as its own, has built up several man-made islands and equipped them with runways, radar systems and missile stations to defend its claims. It has accused the U.S., which routinely deploys warships and planes to the sea, of meddling in a purely Asian dispute. Chinese ships also patrol the sea.

Mahathir was scathing in his criticism of Burma, a country whose inclusion into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations he had pushed for in 1997 despite protests by the U.S. and concerns over human-rights abuses.

"It is grossly unjust to do what they have done, killing people, mass murder. That's not the way civilized nations behave," Mahathir said.

The previous government of predominantly Muslim Malaysia strongly supported the minority Rohingya, who have fled Burma by the hundreds of thousands to neighboring Bangladesh after a crackdown last year that some have called ethnic cleansing.

Burma is often called Myanmar, a name that military authorities adopted in 1989. Some nations, such as the United States and Britain, have refused to adopt the name change.

Mahathir added that he was "very disappointed" in Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi's failure to halt the persecution.

"Obviously she appears to be with the government of the day on how they treat the Rohingya. It's a question of justice and human rights. You can't do that," he said.

He stopped short of committing Malaysia to taking in more Rohingya refugees, however.

A doctor by training, Mahathir is a larger-than-life figure in Malaysia. His influence has dominated the country's politics from the Cold War into the new millennium.

His first turn as prime minister stretched for 22 years, coming to an end in 2003. He rose to prominence by controversially championing the indigenous Malays, whom he saw as disadvantaged compared with the country's Chinese minority, and he oversaw the rapid development of his young country while concentrating power under his increasingly autocratic rule.

Mahathir long seemed to relish his role as an antagonist to the West. He frequently criticized the U.S. and its close allies -- often with colorful and at times offensive language -- while promoting what he saw as Asian values and interests.

Mahathir's criticism of Western leaders has extended to President Donald Trump, whom he last year described as an "erratic man."

His return to office hasn't tempered that opinion.

"So far he has not indicated that I should change my views," he said of Trump on Monday. "He changes his mind within 24 hours. I mean, it is difficult to deal with any person whose mind is not made up."

Information for this article was contributed by Eileen Ng of The Associated Press.

A Section on 08/14/2018

Print Headline: Malaysian looks to shed China projects

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