Malaysian tourism minister says bikini-banners resemble Taliban

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - despite moves to ban the skimpy swimsuits by "Taliban-like" officials in a state run by Islamic fundamentalists — the country's tourism minister said Tuesday.

Visitors from around the world flock to eastern Malaysia's pristine beaches for diving, snorkeling and sunbathing, but officials in Terengganu state were recently quoted as saying that tourists should not wear bikinis, and that hotels should build separate swimming pools for men and women.

Tourism Minister Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir said that Terengganu's government was full of "Taliban-like characters" who have no right to tell local people or foreign tourists what to wear.

"Islam encourages self-discipline," Abdul Kadir said. "If you can't see a woman in a bikini ... that's your problem. You can't go and force people to cover up just because you can't control yourself."

Malaysia's majority ethnic Malays practice Islam, but the country has Chinese and Indian minorities with other religions. The national government encourages religious and ethnic tolerance.

The fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party won control of the eastern state of Terengganu in general elections in 1999, helped by a voter backlash against Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's dismissal of his popular deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, the year before.

Terengganu's government has since tried to impose various conservative measures — such as restricting alcohol use and forcing men and women to use separate checkout lines in supermarkets — but many of the rules are ignored.

The fundamentalist party appears to have lost much of its appeal since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States and revelations that some Malaysian extremists were plotting to overthrow the government.