Blackest Hours

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TIM LARIMER Kuala LumpurMalaysia has learned a whole new vocabulary since its political crisis began several weeks ago. Nasty accusations, ugly innuendo and radical slogans all are popping up on newspaper front pages and Internet websites and in public demonstrations that have shaken up normally placid Kuala Lumpur. One day it's sodomy, graphically explained in an otherwise prudish press. The next it's reformasi, demanded by a normally passive population. But the war of words was finally hushed last week by a startling image. Anwar Ibrahim, the man once groomed to succeed Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, was ushered out of a jail cell and into a courtroom to face charges of sodomy and corruption. He had been arrested nine days earlier, and this was the first time anyone but his captors had seen him.And what a sight he was. His left eye was badly bruised and so swollen it was halfway shut. He told the judge that on the night of his arrest, he had been handcuffed, blindfolded and beaten until he passed out. Then he removed his glasses to reveal the damage. That's when the courtroom--and the country--grew silent. That's when it became clear that Malaysia itself, one of Asia's most stable and prosperous countries, had been given a black eye.The potential political consequences run deeper than the wound itself. This is not something new for the police force, police spokesman Ghazali Mohamad Amin told journalists, in a curious choice of words that were meant to reassure. Previous investigations have found police personnel guilty, and action was taken against them. Many Malaysians, however, feel that something fundamentally new and shocking had taken place. Of course everyone knows there is police brutality, says lawyer Sivarasa Rasiah. But this time, the victim was the man who until recently was Deputy Prime Minister. That, says Sivarasa, stunned people.To many, the charges--which Anwar denies--seem too incredible to believe. He was accused of five counts of sodomy (homosexual acts are illegal in Malaysia) and five counts of corruption (for allegedly trying to cover up the purported sexual crimes). But the government's case suffered a setback last week when two of the men who had confessed to having sex with Anwar recanted their confessions. Prosecutors, however, produced yet another man--a tailor who once made clothes for Anwar's wife--who claims to have been sodomized by Anwar in a hotel room in 1992. Still, the revelation that Anwar was beaten in custody--later confirmed by a doctor--could damage the government's credibility. How can we believe these things when he is treated so unfairly? asks a state office worker who watched as Anwar's young children were led through police barricades to visit their father last week. The response from Mahathir was unrelenting. Maybe, the Prime Minister was quoted as saying by national news agency Bernama, the wounds were self-inflicted. Anwar, he said, would receive much mileage if he can show that he had been tortured by police.Whoever was responsible may have been calculating that authorities could keep Anwar locked up and out of sight for weeks, even months if necessary, without actually charging him with any crimes. He was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows suspects to be detained for 60 days without being charged or put on trial, because, as Mahathir has explained, he was inciting riots. Indeed, thousands of people had taken to the streets for several days before--and just after--Anwar's arrest. But if there were such a calculation by his jailers, it crumbled amid growing pressure, even from within the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), to charge Anwar immediately and answer criticisms that he was arrested only because he challenged Mahathir. People see Anwar as a symbol of everyone who has been unjustly treated, says Syed Husin Ali, a sociologist who himself was jailed for six years in the 1970s for demonstrating in support of hunger-striking students. This system has left many people dissatisfied because they lack access to political connections. Now they have a way to express that anger.PAGE 1  |  
Mahathir has made it clear he will do what's necessary to crack down on such expression. Authorities ensured they didn't have any riots on their hands when Anwar appeared in court last week. Before dawn, hundreds of police armed with shields, clubs and tear-gas canisters assembled around the courthouse, blocking off streets to traffic and stopping anyone from approaching the area. In the immediate aftermath of his court appearance, at least, Anwar's black eye didn't instigate more unrest. That's not because people weren't informed: the local press ran photographs of Anwar on their front pages the next day. But after weeks of street clashes, some activists now say that political change will come not through confrontations with police, but when UMNO meets next year to select a new leader or in the elections that observers think Mahathir might call early next year. Things here will be decided through the electoral process, not through street violence, says leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party Lim Kit Siang.That said, the large turnouts at street protests so far have been remarkable. It's against the law in Malaysia to hold any public assembly without a permit, and university students can be expelled for participating in a political protest. Simply organizing a demonstration is a daunting task. Public announcements are banned, and even faxing or telephoning supporters can be dangerous. Still, the message has gotten out. It's word of mouth, says an activist. And word can spread very quickly. At a rally on Sept. 27 attended by an estimated 20,000 people, three opposition parties and several independent public-interest groups formed a pro-democracy coalition that hopes to push for political reform and improved civil liberties. Even if things now die down, many Malaysians believe the system is changing in fundamental ways. Says women's rights activist Irene Fernandez: There is a political awareness growing at the grass-roots level.Who are these newly energized Malay-sians? While they tend to be young, in their 20s and 30s, the fledgling movement is primarily a middle-class Malay phenomenon (Malays make up 58% of the population). Chinese and Indian minorities have so far not come out in large numbers. It's the middle class that stands to lose the most from the economic downturn and that is bristling at the unfairness they perceive in the system. Some of the Prime Minister's opposition comes from more conservative Muslims, many of whom have aligned themselves with Anwar, but so far the political conflict does not appear to have strong religious overtones. The change in political culture is so significant, and so unanticipated, says political economist Jomo K.S. We now have a population that can say no. People are even saying no to Mahathir.Mahathir still has the muscle to control any challenges. Just ask Anwar. More than 100 of the jailed politician's supporters have been arrested and imprisoned. Activists say they still have plans to organize protests around the country; there already have been a few demonstrations outside Kuala Lumpur. Syed, who heads a socialist-oriented party, tried to organize a meeting in Johor Baru last week, but police prevented it. Mahathir has seen what has happened to Suharto after he was toppled, concludes Syed. He will die with his boots on.The Prime Minister seems to delight in being unpredictable, which makes anticipating his next move all the more difficult. Who would have expected Anwar to have been arrested during the Commonwealth Games, while Britain's Queen Elizabeth was visiting? This was supposed to be a glorious moment for Mahathir. In his 17 years ruling Malaysia, he has helped direct its transformation into a modern country. Besides the Games, this year has seen the opening of a stunning new Kuala Lumpur airport and several grandiose building projects in the capital. But the collapse of the region's economies spoiled the plans and subjected Mahathir to a possible mutiny from his impatient protege. He has responded aggressively, dumping Anwar and imposing capital controls that effectively have shut Malaysia off from the global economy. As he fights his domestic political battle, he also has to deal with renewed foreign criticism, as politicians from Washington to Sydney deplore the way Anwar has been treated. I am concerned that there is a greater embrace of authoritarian behavior in that country, said John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia. If the past is any indication, criticism is only likely to stiffen Mahathir's resolve. That could be risky for a country that already has one black eye.  |  2