Malaysia's Anwar stopped in his tracks
By Ioannis Gatsiounis
KUALA LUMPUR - De facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's eye was on September,
by then he expected to have collected enough defections from the ruling Barisan
Nasional (BN) coalition for the opposition to rule for the first time in
Malaysia's 50-year national history.
If accomplished, it would have capped off one of the greatest political
comebacks in this region's modern history. Instead, with the new allegations of
sodomy, the same charges that led to Anwar's political downfall 10 years ago
while a high-ranking United Malays Nasional Organization stalwart, his
political career could once again be on the brink of dissolution.
Anwar insisted all along that the sodomy, as well as corruption, charges
brought against him were trumped up and he was
released from prison when the sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004. Sodomy
is punishable by 20 years of imprisonment in majority Muslim Malaysia.
Anwar called the latest sodomy allegation made on Saturday by his 23-year-old
political aide a "total fabrication", adding that "these actions are being
repeated today to undermine the forces of reform and renewal which were
unleashed in the March 2008 elections".
In that election, a loose coalition of parties led by Anwar won an
unprecedented 82 seats in the 222-member parliament and control of five of the
national federation's 13 states. On Sunday, Anwar took refuge at the Turkish
Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, claiming that "certain agents" in the BN had
"initiated plots" to assassinate him.
He reportedly received offers of protection from several embassies though chose
the Turkish Embassy because of his close ties to Turkish Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan. Malaysia's Foreign Minister Rais Yatim on Monday said Turkey
was out of diplomatic bounds in giving sanctuary to Anwar, contending the
invitation represented interference in Malaysia's internal affairs.
Malaysia's embattled Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi was quoted saying there was
no governmental intent "to cause [Anwar] trouble or harass him or raise such
issues to undermine him". But the timing of the allegation and the police
investigation now underway are sure to raise doubts.
Since its electoral setback in March, the UMNO-led government has been fighting
for survival and some of its biggest names, including Abdullah himself, find
themselves under intense opposition and new media scrutiny. The premier has
been under pressure to step down since the March election setback, a call that
was ratcheted up two weeks ago from within his own ranks when a BN component
party from the state of Sabah announced, but never followed up, a no-confidence
motion against him.
Meanwhile, Abdullah's deputy and heir-apparent, Najib Razak, finds himself
embroiled in a legal controversy over the murder of a Mongolian interpreter,
creating a succession crisis inside the BN at a crucial political juncture.
Last week Raja Petra, editor of the popular web portal Malaysia Today, said he
had evidence linking Najib's wife to the murder scene, adding to the
speculation that has swirled over the deputy premier's possible role in the
That speculation was fueled when his confidant Abdul Razak Baginda and two
elite bodyguards assigned under Najib were charged in connection with the
crime. Najib has consistently denied any connection to the murder. But the
speculation has drawn more scrutiny to Najib's dealings, most notably three
defense deals made in his capacity as defense minister. Anwar claimed last year
that the deals had reaped at least US$300 million for Najib and his cronies;
Najib brushed off the corruption allegations, saying, "I don't react to Anwar."
Meanwhile, Malaysia's former strongman Mahathir Mohamad is under investigation
for tampering with judicial appointments during the late 1980s, and the newly
emboldened opposition led by Anwar, the same man Mahathir once fired and had
jailed, is threatening if elevated to power to expose other abuses during his
Anwar had planned for some time to file a report against the inspector general
of police and attorney general on grounds that they manufactured evidence
against him in 1998. An aide to Anwar (not the one who was allegedly sodomized)
told this correspondent that the latest accusation could be a pre-emptive
attack against Anwar.
Drive to power
It's still premature to say whether Anwar is being framed and if so which
precise political forces are attempting to derail his drive to power.
Opposition leaders have long pointed to the questionable integrity of the BN
and its appendages, including the police and judiciary, when it comes to
handling evidence and pursuing justice. Police reform is a pressing issue among
the general public, one that Abdullah earlier vowed to address but then backed
If the BN is up to more dirty politicking - or "political murder" as Anwar's
wife described the latest sodomy accusation - it is surely taking a big and
potentially ill-timed political risk that a second charge of sodomy against
Anwar will sway the court of public opinion against the opposition icon. There
is less blind allegiance to the ruling UMNO party than it held a decade ago,
with the previously reticent public taking to the streets in sizeable numbers
several times in the last year calling variously for greater democracy and
The shifting political currents were also apparent in March, when the combined
opposition consisting of the Islamic party known by the acronym PAS, the
Chinese-based Democratic Action Party and Anwar's People's Justice Party bagged
nearly 50% of the popular vote. And yet the public is still deeply divided over
Many Muslim Malays see him as a traitor of the Malay cause; Anwar, an ethnic
Malay himself, has promised to end a positive discrimination policy favoring
the Malays, who make up 55% of the population, and his People's Justice Party
is overtly a pluralist party, which in Malaysia's racially divided political
landscape is often met with suspicion.
Some Indians and Chinese, who combined represent roughly 40% of the population
and overwhelmingly voted for opposition parties at the March polls, suspect
that beneath Anwar's rhetoric of liberty and democracy he is true to his
previous incarnation as a strident Islamic youth leader and is still a staunch
Muslim conservative intent on giving Islam a more prominent role in this
ethnically polarized country. Many also remember the pro-Malay policies he
introduced as an UMNO-appointed education minister.
By going after Anwar the UMNO could avoid addressing the most volatile
political issues here: race and race-based discrimination. Chinese and Indian
political groups cannot accuse perceived framers of the allegations of
targeting one of their own, while many Malays aren't inclined to spring to the
defense of the often-polarizing Anwar.
The test now is whether Malaysians will transcend race to demand justice and a
continuation of the reform movement the March elections have engendered, or
whether they will abandon Anwar on the grounds that he has moved to challenge
the political status quo.
By and large Malaysians responded the latter way after his conviction 10 years
ago. This was due to popular sentiments that he was too ambitious and
misguidedly challenged Mahathir, and regardless of the unjust tactics used by
the then premier to undermine a political ally-turned-opponent.
That episode divided the country and sullied its international reputation,
particularly among Western democracies. Depending on whether the police decide
to file formal charges after an investigation, the new sodomy charges against
Anwar threaten to do the same, particularly considering they come as his
political star is once again firmly on the rise.
They could also cause unforeseen political turmoil. On Monday a crowd of 20,000
opposition supporters in the town of Ipoh, where Anwar was supposed to speak,
spoke out against the sodomy allegation. Anwar over the weekend urged his
supporters to remain "calm but firm", but also said "Enough is enough, we will
fight it out." When Asia Times Online went to press Anwar had not yet been
Meanwhile, the federal police chief of criminal investigations told a news
conference, "We want to establish the allegation first to see whether there is
truth or not. We will conduct a thorough investigation and be fair to both
Abdullah, for his part, said that it is "common for an accused person" to claim
his or her innocence, read by some as a less-than-ringing endorsement of the
basic legal principle of innocent until proven guilty.
Ioannis Gatsiounis is a frequent contributor to Asia Times Online based
in Malaysia. His new book on the pivotal events before and after Malaysia's
March elections that promise to shape its future, Beyond the Veneer, has
just been published by Monsoon Books.