by Zafar Bangash (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 16, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1419)
Amid uncharacteristically strong defiance, the people of Malaysia have kept the tempo of demonstrations despite the arrest of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim last month. Two major political coalitions have also been formed to press the demand for reforms. Opposition to prime minister Mahathir Mohamed’s authoritarian style is growing with all segments of the population - Malay, Chinese and Indian - joining in the protests.
Seventeen political parties and non-governmental organisations which formed the Gerakan Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Movement or GERAK) at Gombak, the Kuala Lumpur headquarters of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) on September 27, have called for a mass rally on October 17. To be held at the National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, the purpose is to put forward Gerakan’s programme before the Malaysian people, according to Ustad Fadhil Noor, president of PAS. He anticipates the turnout will be 500,000.
More than 150,000 people had gathered at Gombak in defiance of the police (gathering of more than four persons in not permitted in Malaysia without police authorisation) for the formation of Gerakan last month. The same day, four political parties and 18 non-governmental organisations had announced formation of the Gagasan Demokrasi Rakyat (The Coalition for People’s Democracy).
When Anwar made a brief court appearance on September 29, for the first time since his arrest, he showed clear signs of torture and mistreatment in police custody. He had a swollen black eye and had bruises on his face, arms and neck. Anwar’s lawyer Pawanchik Marican told reporters outside the courthouse that Anwar had been ‘blindfolded’, beaten and kept in solitary confinement for five days following his September 20 arrest. He was ‘hit and left unconscious until the next morning.’ Mahathir’s statement that Anwar may have self-inflicted the wounds to gain sympathy drew gasps of incredulity from all segments of the population.
His trial date on 10 charges, all of which he has denied, was set for November 2 when Anwar made another court appearance on October 5 before judge Augustine Paul. The judge also ordered the local press to stop publishing details of allegations against him. The government-controlled press has all but pronounced him guilty.
In another blow to Mahathir’s campaign to tarnish the image of his former deputy, the two persons accused of being sodomised by Anwar appealed against their sentences. Sukma Darmawan Sasmitaat Madja, 37, Anwar’s adopted brother, and Dr Munawar A Anees, 51, former editor of Periodica Islamica, Anwar’s friend and speech writer, appealed against their sentences. Pawanchik said that their ‘guilty pleas [of sodomy] were not voluntary.’ The two were neither given access to lawyers nor allowed to see family and friends after their arrest and sudden ‘conviction.’ Anees was admitted to hospital on September 26, allegedly suffering from heart ailment but almost certainly suffering the effects of torture.
Mahathir has relied on two basic props in his anti-Anwar campaign. First, he has tried to use the Malaysians’ traditional deference for authority to present himself as the elder statesman who has been betrayed by a younger former deputy. Mahathir implied that Anwar was power hungry and could not wait his turn. This has had quite the opposite effect. It is Mahathir who is seen as clinging to power. In a stunning defiance of Malay tradition, people just want him to go. He has been nicknamed ‘Papa Doc,’ after the hated Haitian dictator, Francois Duvalier.
The second is Anwar’s alleged sexual misconduct. In a deeply traditional society, this would destroy any person’s reputation were he guilty of such conduct. Few people believe anything Mahathir says these days. They are, in fact, quite aghast at Mahathir’s use of pornographic language.
Far from turning people against Anwar, Mahathir’s allegations have dismayed people from every segment of society in Malaysia. The more he talks about it, the more people are convinced that it is a grand conspiracy to tarnish Anwar’s image.
Also, his arrest soon after attending a massive rally in the heart of Kuala Lumpur has not dampened support for his cause. While not all people may be Anwar’s supporters, they are certainly against Mahathir and his heavyhanded tactics. Of equal dismay to Mahathir is the fact that even after locking Anwar up, people continue to pour into the streets in support of his call for reforms. The crisis has revealed deep cracks in the once-powerful United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) as well.
Of Mahathir’s own making, the political crisis has come at a bad time. The economy has been shaken by the ill-winds of the currency turmoil that has engulfed the entire region. One ruler - general Suharto in neighbouring Indonesia - has already been swept by the tide. The situation in Malaysia may be slightly different but it cannot escape the effects of the Southeast Asian hurricane. Many observers have compared the present crisis to the race riots of 1969 which left a deep imprint on the country’s psyche. Nor is the use of the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA) new. Opponents in the past have suffered under this draconian law but they were often small fries. In the seventies, it was used against members of UMNO, accusing them of being communists. Then in 1987, the mostly Chinese opposition Democratic Action Party was its victim.
Mahathir has no scruples and would not hesitate using any law against Anwar including the ISA. The sexual misconduct allegation, however, does not fall under its purview. Besides, observers have questioned why Sukma and Dr Anees, who allegedly admitted to being sodomised, were jailed when they were the victims of the alleged act?
The manner in which they were arrested, interrogated and then jailed has raised serious questions about the judiciary. Unfortunately, there is no dirth of corrupt judges and police officers in Malaysia. Nobody has been allowed to see or talk to them to hear their side of the story. Mahathir never misses an opportunity to berate the western media for bias but the government-controlled local media have done little more than drumbeat for their master.
Mahathir emerged victorious from two battles in the late eighties against a former finance minister, Razaleigh Hamzah, and Musa bin Hitam, who was the first deputy prime minister at the time. Both posts were occupied by Anwar before his sacking. But unlike the past, the conflict has now spilled into the streets.
And Anwar has not remained silent about his former boss either. In a video interview recorded hours before his arrest, he charged that Mahathir and his cronies and family had stashed away some two billion Malaysian dollars (nearly US$500 million). He has also charged a number of leading figures close to Mahathir with pocketing millions. He says he had brought the matter to the prime minister’s attention but the latter took no notice.
In the video, Anwar has also warned those police officers who instead of doing their duty, were busy serving the whims of an autocratic ruler. Mahathir is seen as both petty and vindictive in old age.
Street protests are not the Malaysian way of political activity. Their eruption reflects the degree of alienation of the masses. The past few weeks have not advanced Mahathir’s cause, nor has he been able to restore investors’ confidence in his beleaguered economy.
Son of an Indian immigrant, Mahathir has often been dismissive of the Malays’ gentle ways. In his book, The Malay Dilemma, banned by his predecessors, he outlined some curious racial theories which many Malays found insulting. Expelled from UMNO in 1969, he came back to take charge in 1981. Now he is trying to block the path of another young man.
If the street protests continue as they appear set to do, Mahathir will find it increasingly difficult to justify mass arrests. Anwar has demonstrated far greater grass-roots support and from a younger generation than had hitherto been thought possible. Also, a number of leading intellectuals have rallied to his cause.
Mahathir may have dug his own political grave. If he was hoping to find an honourable place in history, he is busy demolishing it with his own hands. He would do Malaysia a favour by announcing that he would not be a candidate in the next election. That would save him some face, otherwise he may end up with a fate worse than that of Suharto’s of Indonesia.
Given his stubborn streak and devious ways, no one should hold their breath that Mahathir is capable of doing the honourable thing.
Muslimedia: October 16-31, 1998