"Now The Spark Has Been Lit"

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Wan Azizah Ismail was worried. Not only had her husband Anwar Ibrahim been hustled off to jail two days earlier, but she herself had been warned by police that she would be arrested if she tried to rally support for him in public gatherings. (A day later, Azizah would go to police headquarters for questioning.) Outside her home, scores of journalists waited. Inside, friends, Anwar supporters, lawyers and relatives surrounded the woman who had become the leader of her husband's reform movement. Momentarily alone in the living room, the soft-spoken, 46-year-old ophthalmologist shared her thoughts on that responsibility--and her new, unaccustomed life in the public eye--with Hong Kong bureau chief John Colmey. Excerpts from the interview:TIME: How are you holding up?Azizah: So far not too bad. I've received a lot of support, mainly from relatives and people I did not really expect who have come forward from all walks of life.TIME: I heard [former Philippine President] Cory Aquino just called you.Azizah: Yes, but through another, to give her advice. She said we should start with prayer vigils. But we have done that already, actually. Then she said she gave her support and would speak to the president of Ateneo University in Manila because Anwar has been offered a fellowship there.TIME: Who else has called?Azizah: On the Indonesia side, several have called or sent messages, including [Islamic leader] Amien Rais. They are very concerned about what has happened in Malaysia. And people in Bangkok too.TIME: How is your family taking all this?Azizah: Very well. But the night Anwar was taken, that was very heart-rending. The police came in hooded masks. We were having a very civil press conference with open doors. They kicked the front door open like thugs and raided the place. Of course the reflex of everybody was to rush forward and protect Anwar. But they were shown machine guns.TIME: Anwar is said to have rushed forward and told them, Take off your masks and boots inside my house. Is that right?Azizah: Yes he did say that. And one or two did take off their masks. And others, we could see through their masks, shed a tear or two. You could see their eyes watering. And the first words they said were, We are under orders.TIME: What was the last thing Anwar said to you?Azizah: I'll see you later. We were taken in the same van, five of the children and Anwar and I. The fourth child was left on the bonnet of another car, because of the crowd. The commandos said, We have to go. So we left without her, with all the children crying for her and for their father. Then in the middle of the road, they took Anwar into a separate car. I assumed, wrongly, that I would see him again, but that was the last.TIME: Did he discuss the possibility of your taking over the movement?Azizah: He told me, 'Azizah, if anything happens to me, you take over.' And, well, I have been with him for a long time and shared a lot of his ideals. So I thought if he gave me that trust I would have to carry on his torch, his ideals, his convictions, his bravery. I am very proud. In a way he deserves a rest, if you can call it a rest. Of course they will be harassing him to get information out of him. I don't really know what goes on in prison, but I have ideas. I think he has the strength to get through it with his dignity and his courage.TIME: Do you think it is good for him to be out of UMNO [the United Malays National Organization, the ruling party] system?Azizah: Yes. Now that he is out of UMNO, well, it is true that it had ground him down. But he was always a team player. He had differences, but whatever differences he had with Dr. M, he would accept whatever result was hashed out inside the party. He has actually proven his loyalty. Once when he was feeling especially exasperated he told Dr. M, Maybe I will never find a deputy as loyal to me as I am to you. But it was years of frustration, of suppression, of trying to find the best solution. And it failed, because now it cost him his safety and may have even endangered his life. I'm not really sure about his life. But as a concerned wife, I listen to too many rumors and sometimes it gets to me. But I have to keep calm and objective.TIME: Are you ready to lead a movement like this?Azizah: It is not a question of whether I am ready or don't want to. I have to.TIME: There are huge organizational challenges.Azizah: Yes. I would like to be a symbol mainly. The workings of the movement I will leave to others, although [the government] has been cracking down on Anwar's supporters. But I would like to be a symbol of what the reformation is all about and what Anwar has started. I am a symbol of calm, of caring, of wanting what is best for all of our people. Because I have also been told by the police that I must not incite unrest and I must not try to speak out.TIME: What else did the police say?Azizah: They came with a police report that I caused a weakening in the, what was it, criminal justice system because of my comments that I am afraid for my husband's life after I heard they may do something like injecting viruses, hiv especially. They said on that I had actually transgressed the law.TIME: What did you say?Azizah: Nothing, because they didn't have a warrant. So they talked to my lawyers, who told them to come back with a warrant.PAGE 1  |   Can Wan Azizah Ismail sustain her husband's reform movement? Should Anwar have been arrested as a threat to national security? Will the currency controls help Malaysia?
TIME: What did the other police who visited say?Azizah: They came in good faith and asked me to follow the laws and disperse the crowd, because it was causing a disturbance on the streets. I told them, I have a right to speak as a Malaysian citizen. My husband has been detained. I have to speak out, please understand that. I kept telling them I will abide by their rule. I took down the speakers and spoke to the press outside quietly. The police told me, Be patient. I told them that Anwar had all these rallies, and there were no untoward incidents. At the courts I could see they used undue force on innocent bystanders. I told them if you start with aggression, the reflex will be aggression. They kept quiet on that. I'm not trying to do anything, I'm only trying to defend my husband.TIME: Are you prepared to be arrested?Azizah: Frankly, I don't want to be arrested. But whether they arrest me or not, they have the power. That much I know. But I haven't transgressed the law. You tell me, I'll follow. I just voice my concerns.TIME: Will you speak at any rallies?Azizah: No. The police have come twice, so it was kind of a stern message.TIME: Did you ever think the Prime Minister would go this far?Azizah: No. I respected him. I thought he was a great leader. He has done a lot for our country. I did not think he would do this. I would like to tell him, Please listen to the voice of sanity.TIME: If your husband is allegedly a homosexual or whatever, why would the government need to arrest all these other people?Azizah: Exactly. As Anwar has said, it is only to bring him down, so he does not become the next Prime Minister. Ever.TIME: Do you think Anwar will ever become Prime Minister?Azizah: In my hopes and my prayers, for the sake of the country. But it's difficult. I am not saying this just because he is my husband. And the next thing they will say is, Azizah wants to be the first lady, that's why she is saying all this.TIME: Were you surprised by the momentum that built up after he was fired?Azizah: Of course. At first, we said, O.K., lah, they have all the forces of government behind them--the judiciary, the police, the media. But then the ordinary people on the street, they started saying things, that they were concerned about their future. Before, it was, Oh well it is only one guy, too bad, lah. But now it seems like a square fight. It touched me very deeply. I believe in the goodness of people. That is really my strength now.TIME: Was Anwar surprised?Azizah: Yes he was. When he was a student leader, he was mainly among the Malays. But now his support crosses all walks of life. They see the injustice. It really brings all the Malaysians together.TIME: Do you think Prime Minister Mahathir has made a mistake here?Azizah (laughing): I think he has been wrongly advised.TIME: Are you going to use the Internet to rally the people?Azizah: Yes, we have been using it. Because all the other avenues, the private and public press, have been closed.TIME: What is your strategy?Azizah: I can't disclose it right now. I have to take care.TIME: Are you worried the momentum will fade now that Anwar is behind bars?Azizah: No. Because now the spark has been lit. I am very optimistic.  |  PAGE 2 Can Wan Azizah Ismail sustain her husband's reform movement? Should Anwar have been arrested as a threat to national security? Will the currency controls help Malaysia?