Monday, June 30, 2008

The Trial of Anwar

July 01, 2008
THERE is good reason to be concerned about the dramatic turn of events in Malaysia, where opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been forced to claim sanctuary in a foreign embassy after new allegations of sodomy were made against him. The local police have promised a quick investigation of the claims, made by Mr Anwar's 23-year-old aide, that he was sexually assaulted by his boss in a Kuala Lumpur apartment. But Mr Anwar, who was politically crushed when he was imprisoned on similar charges a decade ago, is adamant the latest allegations represent the desperate actions of a government under pressure. To help build the picture of a conspiracy, Mr Anwar's supporters have produced photographs of his accuser at social functions with senior government officials.

Nonetheless, the allegations against Mr Anwar dent hopes of a smooth transition of power in Malaysia after 50 years of National Front rule. These hopes have been building since the ruling coalition, dominated by the United Malays National Organisation, suffered a collapse of support in the elections held on March 8. Mr Anwar was not eligible to take part in the poll, but the ban on his running for political office expired in April. Since then, he has been manoeuvring to weaken the ruling coalition and enter parliament through a by-election, with the aim of becoming prime minister.

Mr Anwar's political success has centred on his ability to broker an unlikely stable coalition that brings together the opposition Islamist Malay party, PAS, with the civil liberty concerns of Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

Mr Anwar's People's Justice Party, or Parti Keadilan Rakyat, won 82 seats with a group of allies in the 222-seat lower house of parliament in the March 8 vote. The alliance needs 30 more seats to replace the National Front coalition, and Mr Anwar was considered well on the way to achieving this target through defections.

The charge of sodomy is punishable by 20 years in jail in Malaysia, even if it is consensual. But the charge is rarely prosecuted, and given Mr Anwar's earlier experience, it is possible to believe the campaign against him is politically motivated.

Mr Anwar was identified internationally as a successor to Malaysia's long-serving prime minister Mohamad Mahathir, but he fell out of political favour in 1988 when he challenged Dr Mahathir's handling of the economy at the height of the Asian financial crisis. Mr Anwar was sacked by Dr Mahathir, and then charged with sodomy and corruption. Mr Anwar's conviction for sodomy was overturned by the Federal Court, and he was released from prison in 2004.

The latest allegations against Mr Anwar undermine hopes that Malaysia will become a model for peaceful democratic change in the Islamic world. The fresh tensions in the country coincide with rising political and economic troubles elsewhere in the region. Thailand is still experiencing street protests against the perceived influence of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in September 2006. And inflation is fuelling widespread political upheaval in India, Indonesia and The Philippines.

Against such a background, there were high hopes that confirmation of a healthy liberal democracy in Malaysia could help change the dynamic and political culture of Southeast Asia for the better. A re-run of the political dirty tricks campaign against Mr Anwar -- which his supporters claim is calculated to provoke street riots and allow the Government to invoke emergency powers -- has the potential to considerably set back the cause of democracy in the region. source:-