Malaysia mourns key opposition figure Nik Aziz

Malaysia mourns key opposition figure Nik Aziz
Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) spiritual leader Nik Aziz.

KUALA LUMPUR - Tens of thousands gathered Friday to mourn Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, a key Muslim opponent of Malaysia's authoritarian regime, but whose advocacy of harsh Islamic criminal punishments worried many in the multi-faith nation.

Nik Aziz died from prostate cancer in his home in northern Malaysia late on Thursday at the age of 84.

For more than three decades, he was a top leader of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a member of the three-party opposition alliance that, since its 2008 formation, has placed mounting pressure on the long-serving government.

His passing is the second blow for the alliance this week. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed for five years Tuesday on sodomy charges widely viewed as politically motivated.

State-controlled television showed a sea of mourners in white skullcaps carrying Nik Aziz's coffin and then placing his body, covered by a white cloth, into a grave in his hometown in northern Kelantan state on Friday.

An Islamic scholar who studied in India and Egypt, the diminutive Nik Aziz had since the early 1990s been the party's spiritual leader and - until his 2013 retirement - chief minister of PAS-held Kelantan.

He was widely respected for maintaining the party's appeal to the Muslim ethnic Malays who make up more than 60 per cent of Malaysia's people, despite fierce competition from the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

Despite his calls for huddud - criminal punishments including severing of limbs for theft - to be applied to Muslims, he was viewed as a moderating presence who voiced tolerance toward Malaysia's large Chinese, Indian and other minorities.

But a growing push by PAS conservatives to implement huddud, along with Anwar's jailing, have helped to tip the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact) coalition into crisis.

Huddud is seen as contravening the federal constitution so it is highly unlikely to be implemented.

But the issue has deeply divided the opposition alliance, raising the spectre of its collapse if PAS conservatives win an ongoing tussle for party control that has worsened since Nik Aziz was sidelined because his poor health.

"With Nik Aziz's passing, the moderates in PAS have lost their strongest pillar of strength," said Ibrahim Suffian, head of Merdeka Centre, Malaysia's leading polling organisation.

Still, he added his death could also bring PAS together and see it reaffirm its commitment to the opposition coalition.

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