Thursday, December 3, 2009

Dangers in Jailing Malaysia's Anwar

PENANG - The more things change, the more they remain the same in Malaysian politics. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has failed to get a court to strike out a sodomy charge against him, which means the controversial trial that threatens to bump him from politics and land him in prison is set to begin on January 25.

It will represent the second time Anwar faces charges of sodomy, which is considered a criminal act in Malaysia's Muslim majority society. This time, he faces charges of sodomizing his 24-year-old former personal aide at a condominium in Kuala Lumpur in mid-2008.

For many Malaysians, there is a sense of deja vu with the 1999 trial that involved his wife's chauffeur. But the Malaysian political landscape has evolved considerably over the "reformasi" years that followed Anwar's ouster as finance minister from former premier Mahathir Mohamad's government in September 1998, coinciding with the height of the Asian financial crisis.

For starters, Anwar's mentor-turned-nemesis, who ruled the country from 1981 to 2003, is no longer in power. He has since emerged as a vocal critic of his self-appointed and later elected successor, Abdullah Badawi, as well as newly appointed Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Since Anwar's release from prison in 2004, six years after his ouster from government, Anwar has played an instrumental role in bringing together the opposition parties. His efforts helped produce a shock result in last year's general election: the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lost its coveted two-thirds parliamentary majority in parliament and five out of 13 states in the federation fell to opposition party rule.

Opposition parties now control only four state governments after the BN wrested back Perak state earlier this year under controversial legal circumstances. But despite such strong-arm tactics, Malaysian politics have become more fluid, with issues of race, religion and corruption intensely debated online and in political talks. No longer is the BN the overwhelming political force it was previously, though it still controls the main levers of administrative power.

The BN parties representing ethnic minorities, such as the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), still reeling after the electoral drubbing they suffered last year, have proven unable to reform or renew themselves. Instead, the MCA is deeply divided by factionalism while the MIC is staring at irrelevance.

Anwar, who re-entered parliament after winning a by-election last August, was instrumental in stabilizing and bringing under one umbrella the opposition parties after their unexpected gains in the 2008 general election. He helped establish a leadership council among the three main parties - his People's Justice Party, the Islamic Party and the Democratic Action Party - under the banner of the Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance).
Meanwhile, Anwar's unrelenting push for more de
mocracy has captured international attention. An e-mail flier released this week by his office announced that the US-based Foreign Policy magazine listed Anwar among the world's top 100 global thinkers due to "his persistent challenge to the Muslim world to embrace democracy". The flier also noted that this year the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Jordan listed him among the world's 500 most influential Muslims for "dramatically changing the political landscape of Malaysia".

Those political breakthroughs have paved the way for a two-coalition system that has provided an unprecedented political check and balance on the BN. Zaid Ibrahim, a cabinet minister who quit last year in protest at the government's arbitrary use of the feared Internal Security Act to silence dissent, is now leading the process of formalizing the People's Alliance into an electoral entity, similar to the ruling BN coalition.

But the similarities between the two coalitions end there: The BN and the Pakatan have sharply contrasting political approaches. Whereas UMNO is the dominant force in the BN (although decision-making is said to be by consensus), the Pakatan offers a collective approach to policy-making.

Even though repressive federal laws are still in place, there has been a democratic opening, felt especially in the four Pakatan-led state governments. Government-owned buildings are now available for use by non-BN political parties and critical civil society groups, which had previously found it difficult to secure such venues for their events. Rarely do riot police mobilize, as they did before, each time Pakatan politicians hold political talks or rallies.

Diminished Fear Factor

That growing democratic space has reduced the public fear factor, where previously many found it more prudent to keep their political opinions to themselves. For instance, tens of thousands marched calling for an abolition of the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) in the streets of Kuala Lumpur in August - prompting the government to announce in its aftermath that it would review and amend the law.

Pakatan-led state governments also joined in calling for the ISA's repeal.

Constrained by a squeeze on federal funding, Pakatan-led state governments have claimed to plug leakages on state and local council expenditure, reduce corruption and implement an open tender system for government contracts, winning plaudits from a public weary of years of BN-led graft and abuse. Pakatan politicians are already looking ahead to build on their gains in the next general election, which some analysts believe could be held as early as 2011.

The BN-led federal government has also lost its long-time monopoly on news and information flows. Increased Internet penetration means that Malaysians are much more aware of issues involving alleged corruption, wastage of state funds and official abuse of power. Some analysts now believe that the "alternative" Internet-based news media, which have sidestepped government controls on the print and electronic media, could now be considered the "mainstream" media based on their large readerships.

The government-owned or controlled media, once regarded as the "mainstream", continue to hemorrhage readers, especially among the younger, tech-savvy generation. News portals such as the well-established, Malaysia Today and Malaysian Insider, and new entrants such as the Malaysian Mirror and Free Malaysia Today, are filling the news gap left by government influenced newspapers.

Having lost its monopoly over the print media (television and radio are still tightly state controlled and have extensive reach), the BN government must for the first time compete in the marketplace of ideas and competing arguments, a role that does not come naturally to its traditional patronage politicians.

Many BN federal ministers and elected representatives, including Najib, now make use of blogs to communicate with their constituents. Najib also turned last month to social networking site Facebook and is now a regular on Twitter. His latest tweet: "Now back in Malaysia after overseas visits to US and CHOGM [Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting], Trinidad and Tobago. Much work to do!"

It will thus be difficult for the BN to put the genie of democracy back in the bottle. Unlike Anwar's first trial, it is not only the judges, prosecutors and lawyers who will be scrutinizing the evidence in the new sodomy charge brought against him. Rather it will come under intense and unprecedented public scrutiny through new media outlets.

Much has changed in terms of democracy and accountability between Anwar's sodomy trial I and sodomy trial II, and the public uproar in reaction to any perceived injustice in the proceedings could make the previous reformasi protest movement Anwar sparked over a decade ago look tame in comparison. By Anil Netto freelance writer based in Penang, Malaysia.

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