The Movement Lives On

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DAVID LIEBHOLD Kubang PasuThere seems to be no relief in sight for Mahathir Mohamad. Even as Malaysia's fiery Prime Minister struggles to shake the economy out of its recession, a coalition of opposition forces is clamoring for his ouster. If he doesn't resign, he'll be thrown out at the next election, predicts Abdul Manaf, a rice farmer in Mahathir's parliamentary seat of Kubang Pasu, Kedah. After a lifetime of voting for the Prime Minister's United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Manaf says he now supports the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS). Rising prices are part of the reason, but Manaf, 50, is also upset about the dismissal and subsequent arrest of Mahathir's former deputy Anwar Ibrahim. If they can treat the No. 2 person like that, he asks, what about little people like us?Malaysia's reformasi movement has, quite unexpectedly, survived. A month after Anwar's arrest, rallies attended by thousands are still being held nearly every day--despite police roadblocks, beatings and arrests. In an unprecedented alliance, the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the fundamentalist PAS--Malaysia's two main opposition parties--have joined a united anti-government front. Against this backdrop, Mahathir, 72, has already conceded that the government's majority is likely to shrink at the next election, which must be held by the year 2000. There is time for further damage control, but the rift over Anwar within the Malay majority will be difficult to heal. The split is there, says Azmi Abdul Hamid, chairman of the Kedah-based Teras, a trust for the advancement of ethnic Malays. There's a loss of confidence in the Malay leadership as embodied by UMNO.Mahathir has survived political crises before, but this time the Malaysian economy is in recession and the government is facing stronger international criticism than in the past. The Indonesian and Philippine presidents have broken the ASEAN code of silence to express concern about Anwar's fate. Unlike the last big UMNO split, in 1987, this one involves ordinary citizens all over the country. This is bigger than previous crises, says Mahfuz Omar, a member of the PAS central committee and secretariat head of the Malaysian People's Justice Movement (GERAK), one of the two overlapping opposition coalitions.PAGE 1  |  
Economic woes and Malaysia's controversial detention of Anwar Ibrahim are fraying nerves--and tempers--inside the once oh-so-polite confines of ASEAN
Thailand's unusually assertive Foreign Minister makes the case that engagement isn't meddlingWere Philippine President Estrada and Indonesian President Habibie
 
The opposition movement accuses Mahathir of trampling on both human rights and state institutions, by trying to use the police, the media and the law for his own ends. Justice for Anwar is merely one among many broad demands, say GERAK's leaders, who also echo the Indonesian movement that helped topple Suharto earlier this year in calling for an end to corruption, collusion and nepotism. While Mahathir and his ministers rail against what they see as a pro-Anwar bias in the foreign media, some Malaysians complain about their government's tight control over local news. Why do we have to watch cnn and cnbc to find out what is happening to Anwar? asks Mohamad Nor, a hotel worker attending a GERAK rally in Malacca. People aren't stupid anymore, adds fruit trader Fairus Yunus. We've all been to school now.UMNO leaders remain adamant that Mahathir will pull through. Time is necessary for emotion to lapse and for reason to come in, says Sanusi Junid, chief minister of Kedah. He adds that, so far, party officials have concentrated on explaining Anwar's sudden demise to UMNO's 2.4 million members, rather than to the general public. The party is concerned that opposition voters are registering themselves in borderline seats, such as Baling and Kuala Kedah, and that, as Sanusi puts it, there is now a group of Malays who will not read any other papers except the opposition papers. But the election is still a long way off, and memories of the Anwar affair could fade. In the elections, says Sanusi, people will look at what we can offer: stability and development.In partnership with non-Malay parties, UMNO has ruled Malaysia with a two-thirds majority since the country's 1957 independence. The National Front coalition won the 1995 national election by a landslide. But even before the shock of Anwar's dismissal, there had been signs the government was losing voter support. The National Front has lost all three parliamentary by-elections held since the national poll, in each case by a large margin. In the Sarawak state elections of September 1996, the DAP gained three of the assembly's 62 seats--a breakthrough after 18 years of failing to win any.Mahathir's foes, meanwhile, are grappling with some big uncertainties. Can the momentum of the reformasi movement be maintained for another 12 to 18 months? Will a shift toward PAS scare the non-Muslim Chinese into the arms of the National Front? Can the opposition parties and hard-core Anwar supporters reach a non-aggression pact that would enable them to cooperate at the election, rather than run against each other? Any outbreak of street violence, particularly involving ethnic confrontation, will play into the government's hands. But if that can be avoided, says DAP chief Lim Kit Siang, the potential is there for Malaysians to come together, cutting across the racial divide. UMNO may be facing its toughest contest ever.  |  2
Economic woes and Malaysia's controversial detention of Anwar Ibrahim are fraying nerves--and tempers--inside the once oh-so-polite confines of ASEAN
Thailand's unusually assertive Foreign Minister makes the case that engagement isn't meddlingWere Philippine President Estrada and Indonesian President Habibie