Wan Azizah Ismail, wife of Anwar Ibrahim
"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.
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THIS WEEK'S TABLE OF CONTENTS
October 5, 1998
DR. M STRIKES BACK
Rocked by street protests, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad tries to squelch a budding reform movement by jailing former duputy Anwar Ibrahim. But has the crackdown come too late?
Anwar's wife picks up the mantle
The economy will decide Mahathir's fate