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Chief minister of Malaysia's Sarawak state resigns

The controversial chief minister of Malaysia's Sarawak state announced his resignation on Wednesday but is widely expected to retain influence behind the scenes and through a business empire built via what critics have called flagrant corruption.

KUALA LUMPUR: The controversial chief minister of Malaysia's Sarawak state announced his resignation on Wednesday but is widely expected to retain influence behind the scenes and through a business empire built via what critics have called flagrant corruption.

One of Malaysia's most powerful political figures, Taib Mahmud, 77, has been chief minister of resource-rich Sarawak since 1981, implementing ambitious plans to develop the backward state, Malaysia's largest, on Borneo island.

But Taib has come under mounting criticism over the years amid allegations of blatant graft and environmentally destructive policies.

"Taib Mahmud will retire as chief minister of Sarawak with effect from February 28," Samuel Simon, a Sarawak government spokesman, told AFP.

Simon said Taib -- who has a private jet and is known for driving around in his Rolls-Royce cars -- made the announcement in the state capital Kuching.

No reason for the resignation was given.

But Malaysia's ruling coalition, whose grip on parliament has steadily weakened in recent elections due in part to public disgust with official corruption, is believed to have been pressing Taib to quit for years.

Taib's Sarawak-based party is a member of the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition that has governed Malaysia since independence in 1957.

Simon did not reveal Taib's future plans, but speculation is rife that he will seek to assume the ceremonial position of Sarawak governor.

"In the event he becomes the new governor, he will hold a symbolically influential position. It can be translated to mean he still retains power," said political analyst Khoo Kay Peng.

Simon said the chief minister's post would be assumed by Adenan Satem, a state government official and Taib protege.

Observers say Taib has escaped prosecution for alleged corruption due to his importance to the Barisan coalition.

Sarawak parties that he controls held on to 25 parliamentary seats in hard-fought elections last May, which proved crucial to Barisan retaining power.

Malaysia's longest-serving chief minister, Taib has long denied allegations of corruption.

With a population of 2.5 million people, sparsely-populated Sarawak is dominated by rich jungle habitats and powerful rivers.

Activist groups say Taib and his clan have plundered that bounty, running Sarawak like a family business by routinely awarding major government contracts to companies they control and decimating once-rich forests via logging.

Citing financial documents, Swiss-based rainforest-protection group Bruno Manser Fund said in 2012 that Taib's family controlled Sarawak's biggest companies and held stakes in hundreds of corporations in Malaysia and abroad.

Taib has pushed a campaign to build as many as a dozen hydroelectric dams - Sarawak already has three - on untamed rivers, hoping cheap electricity will lure foreign industrial investment.

But critics say the dams are inundating huge swathes of rainforest inhabited by indigenous tribes, and will produce far more electricity than Sarawak needs.

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