WORLD

Reformer behind bars

BERTON WOODWARD October 5 1998
WORLD

Reformer behind bars

BERTON WOODWARD October 5 1998

Reformer behind bars

WORLD

MALAYSIA

Mahathir levels sex charges at his onetime heir

The house had become a magnet for Malaysians angered by the sudden sacking of its owner, ex-deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. Each day, thousands flocked to the two-storey stucco home in an affluent Kuala Lumpur neighborhood to hear Anwar denounce his former boss and mentor, long-ruling Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and the allegations of sexual misdeeds Mahathir had levelled against him. They punched their fists in the air as Anwar led them in chants of “Reformasi"—reform —echoing the opposition battle cry in neighboring Indonesia. University students who had signed up as volunteers at the two-week-long Commonwealth Games instead used the time to sweep the house Mahathir: clean and unstack red-and-white plastic chairs in neat rows for visitors to watch Anwar’s speeches on video. “He’s our leading light,” said 22-year-old Mashar Ibrahim, sporting a crew cut and a freshly scrubbed Islamic white shirt. “We’re prepared to suffer with him through the end.” So it was fitting that, on one of the most dramatic days in Malaysia’s history, the end of Anwar’s freedom came as he sat with his wife on the back porch of the house, talking to the news media. A dozen police clad in black balaclavas and flak jackets and wielding assault weapons burst through the front

door. People screamed, veiled women began wailing “May Allah prevail” and hundreds of supporters jammed the front door in a bid to delay his arrest. Outside, more than 50 soldiers armed with shields and thick poles stood in rows keeping a chanting crowd at bay. Finally, after being allowed a last hour closeted with his family and lawyers, Anwar was escorted out the front door to cries of “Reformasi” and “God is great.” The arrest followed an unprecedented rally of some 35,000 people in the capital’s central Freedom Square, the site of the former Malaya’s declaration of g. independence from Britain in I 1957 and not far from where s Mahathir was hosting the Queen ¿ as she prepared to close the I Games the next day. There An‘dictator’ war had led the crowd in demanding the resignation of the former physician who has led the country since 1981, calling him stupid and senile. “We have given Dr. Mahathir enough time,” Anwar shouted over the public-address system. “Enough is enough.”

It was for Mahathir. The day after Anwar’s arrest, the government announced he was being held under the draconian Internal Security Act, which permits indefinite detention without trial. Later, authorities said he would be put on open trial on sexual charges, including adultery and homosexuality, which is illegal in Malaysia. I cannot

accept a man who is a sodomist to become the leader of this country,” said Mahathir.

How had it come to this? For years, Anwar, 51, had been the 72-year-old prime minister’s right-hand man and chosen successor. Mahathir himself had recruited him in 1982 to join the dominant United Malays National Organization, which rules the country in coalition with Chinese and Indian-based parties, after Anwar had carved out a career as the outspoken leader of a Muslim youth movement. Anwar quickly rose through the cabinet ranks, becoming finance minister in 1991 and adding the deputy title in 1993. The country of 22 million, meanwhile, was among the most successful in riding Southeast Asia’s boom, boasting growth rates of eight per cent.

Then came Asia’s crash last year. Malaysia’s currency plunged, and Mahathir famously accused international traders such as billionaire George Soros of deliberately undermining the country. As recession loomed, Mahathir became increasingly unhappy with Anwar’s pro-Western financial views. The issue came to a head when the finance minister resisted Mahathir’s controversial move to fix the exchange rate and impose capital controls. On Sept. 2, Mahathir sacked him.

Anwar responded with a series of unauthorized rallies around the country that drew thousands. Officials, meanwhile, announced that Anwar was under investigation for sedition, treason and sexual offences that his supporters saw as a bid to undermine his backing among conservative Muslims. At his news conference, Mahathir said he had personally interviewed men and women Anwar had sex with. Anwar strenuously denied the charges and accused Mahathir of trying to cover up massive corruption. Anwar’s wife, Azizah Ismail, an ophthalmologist with whom he has five daughters and a son, supported him fiercely. After his arrest, she took up his leadership mantle, expressing fears that authorities might inject her imprisoned husband with the AIDS virus to back up their claims.

As authorities arrested several of Anwar’s supporters and cracked down on rallies, Mahathir said sarcastically: “It has been spread across the world that I am a dictator.” Yet despite his renewed burst of authoritarianism, many analysts cautioned against drawing too tight a parallel between Mahathir and Indonesia’s deposed strongman, Suharto. “In Indonesia, the empty stomachs caused the revolution,” said Roslin Hashim, a university lecturer who attended one of Anwar’s illegal road shows in the rural heartland. “But here, the Malays still have their bowl of rice, a sarong to wear, a car and house.” Mahathir, who has disposed of deputies before, is betting that with Anwar behind bars, calls for reforma si will slowly fade away. This time, though, history may not be on his side.

BERTON WOODWARD

ALVIN UNG