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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Malaysia: deja vu all over again


Reading the first reports of the accusations against Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, I had to check the date at the top of the page. Has there been a time slip? Is this file 10 years old?

For Anwar to be accused of sodomy again, 10 years after he last challenged the position of Malaysia's prime minister and ended up in jail for sodomy (a crime in Malaysia), stretches the notion of coincidence to the breaking point.

Ten years ago the prime minister was Mahathir Mohamad, the long-ruling autocratic leader who had made Anwar his deputy prime minister. The two men fell out over economic policy and Anwar's too-obvious ambition, so Anwar was charged with corruption — and, for good measure, with sodomy. His credibility had to be destroyed, and so a former employee was persuaded to lay a complaint against him.

Anwar is a married man with six children. That does not mean that he could not be guilty of homosexual rape, but there were many questionable elements of the case, including the fact that he was beaten almost to death by the national chief of police in person after he was arrested. Nevertheless, Anwar was convicted and sent to prison. His political career seemed over.

Mahathir finally retired at the age of 78 in 2003, and the courts overturned Anwar's conviction for sodomy the following year. He was freed from jail, but because the corruption conviction was not also quashed, he was still banned from running for office for five more years. The opposition coalition had come to see him as a leader, however, and his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, became the head of the opposition in Parliament.

Then, early this year, Malaysian politics went into overdrive. In the March election, the ruling National Front lost the two-thirds majority in the national parliament that it had held for the past 40 years, emerging with a narrow majority that could easily crumble if only a couple of dozen of its members defect to the opposition. As they well might, given the way Malaysian politics is played.

Both the ruling National Front and the opposition alliance led by Anwar are coalitions of parties representing Malaysia's three main ethnic groups, Malays, Chinese and Indians. To some extent they are just the "ins" and the "outs" — many leading members of the opposition coalition, like Anwar himself, once belonged to the National Front, but were disappointed in their ambitions — but some of the opposition parties also want to overthrow Malaysia's entire ethnic settlement.

The dominant population in most of what is now Malaysia is the Malays, a seafaring people who converted to Islam in the 15th century. Under British rule, however, huge numbers of Chinese and Indian workers were imported — and their descendants now account for 40 percent of the country's 26 million people.

The immigrants quickly came to dominate the economy, while the Malay majority remained mostly rural, less well educated, and much poorer. Malay resentment erupted into bloody race riots that almost tore the new country apart in 1969 — and so the New Economic Policy of 1970 gave preference to Malays for government jobs and contracts, university places, and business licenses.

Malaysia has prospered greatly since then — but the National Front that was created to preserve this deal was always in power, and the country was not really a full democracy. Much time has passed, however, and last March's election showed how much has changed. The new state government in Penang canceled the Malay preference rule as soon as it took power last March, and in Kuala Lumpur last month Anwar claimed that 30 National Front members of Parliament were ready to defect to his coalition, which would give the opposition a majority in the national parliament.

Moreover, the legal ban on Anwar's participation in public life expired in April, and he was about to seek a parliamentary seat in a by-election. He might have been prime minister by September. It would have been a revolution in Malaysian politics.

Then suddenly last week, a 23-year-old man who volunteered to work for the opposition during the election earlier this year, and then became an assistant to Anwar, accused him of sodomy. Anwar immediately took refuge in the Turkish Embassy, fearing that the next step would be assassination.

Anwar left the embassy after getting a promise from Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi that he would not be harmed, but he could be arrested anytime. The National Front government, even if it did not set the whole thing up, certainly plans to let it play out. When Abdullah was asked what he thought about Anwar's denials, he said it "was common for an accused person" to claim he was innocent.

This is a very dangerous game. The blood and fire of 1969 seem far away from the prosperity of modern Malaysia, but it was the pro-Malay preferences of the 1970 deal that made it stable. Now that deal has to be reshaped into something less unfair to the minorities. Malaysia can do it the easy way, or the hard way. It may choose the hard way.

Gwynne Dyer's new book, "After Iraq," was published in London recently by Yale University Press.


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