KUALA LUMPUR, June 18, 2011 (AFP) - Malaysia's biennial convention to promote economic collaboration with Africa will begin Sunday with the attendance of controversial Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.
Dubbed the Langkawi International Dialogue and a brainchild of ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, the forum aims to stimulate economic collaboration between Malaysia and a continent beset by conflicts, coups and political turmoil.
The 87-year-old Mugabe, who is banned from travelling to the European Union over his regime's human rights record, arrived in Malaysia on Saturday and will be among leaders from 20 countries expected to attend the four-day event in Putrajaya, south of the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Around 500 delegates from countries including Lesotho, Gambia, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Namibia will be welcomed by Prime Minister Najib Razak when he kicks off proceedings at the 14th forum, the ninth to be held in Malaysia.
Africa is a good bet for growth, say analysts, with the International Monetary Fund expecting it to expand faster than the global average in the coming years, with six of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies coming from the continent last year.
Malaysia's heavily trade-dependent economy needs to find new markets for the manufactured products, oil and palm oil that it exports.
Deputy foreign minister Kohilan Pillay said total trade between Malaysia and Africa in 2010 stood at 25 billion ringgit ($8.2 billion), a 39 percent surge from the previous year.
"There are tremendous opportunities for Malaysia. We need to explore the various opportunities," he added.
Officials say investors will meet potential partners and identify opportunities during the forum while leaders will map ways to promote trade and economic ties.
However, the invitation to controversial African leaders with poor human rights records have caused concern among activists with Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, pulling out amid opposition to his presence from rights groups.
Former president of the Malaysian Bar Council Ragunath Kesavan urged authorities to uninvite Mugabe as it will be seen as condoning his abuses.
"We should not engage with Mugabe. We should not add legitimacy to this international pariah," he said.
"It will be seen as condoning and sympathetic to what Mugabe is doing in his country," Ragunath added.