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Bruised but Unbowed

Malaysia's reformasi movement has no leader, no unity and little realistic prospect of success. But it's still going strong. And the Islamic opposition may benefit.

By S. Jayasankaran in Kedah with Murray Hiebert in Kuala Lumpur
October 8, 1998

M alaysians like to think of themselves as fundamentally decent people, tolerant, not prone to brutality. That self-image came in for a shock on September 29, the day Anwar Ibrahim, their ousted deputy prime minister, appeared in court with a black eye and bruises on his arm. Anwar told the hushed Kuala Lumpur courtroom that on the first night of his detention, he was handcuffed, blindfolded and beaten "till I virtually passed out." There is also much that's shocking about the political crisis that has gripped Malaysia since Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad fired Anwar on September 2. Not least is the fact that Anwar's reformasi movement has not faded away. The odds against it gaining momentum are high: Anwar and 16 of his allies have been jailed under the Internal Security Act, leaving the movement leaderless; the groups that support it, ranging from non-governmental organizations to Muslim activists, have little in common; and most mainstream Malaysians, especially the ethnic Chinese, simply don't want to rock the boat.

The government's response to the challenge, however, seems to keep adding fuel to the fire. Just as some observers were asking whether the protest movement had peaked, the alleged beating by police of the 51-year-old Anwar sent new shockwaves through the capital. "How can they do that to him?" says an outraged secretary. "This is terrible; he isn't a common criminal." More dramatically, a Malaysian ex-diplomat contacted by the REVIEW broke down and wept on hearing the news. "May God save this country," he sobbed.

Anwar's alleged beating is also pummelling Malaysia's reputation abroad. The U.S. State Department immediately called in Malaysia's deputy chief of mission in Washington to convey its "deep concern," and called for an investigation of the reported "police brutality." Not everyone believes Anwar, though. An executive at a Malaysian multinational argues that the police wouldn't have beaten Anwar in the glare of world attention. Mahathir was quoted by the official Bernama news agency as saying that Anwar's injuries may have been self-inflicted. Anwar has filed a complaint about the alleged beating and police say they are investigating. He was refused bail but the judge presiding over his hearing allowed a doctor to examine him.

Word of Anwar's condition overshadowed his arraignment on September 29 and 30. He was charged with five counts of unnatural sex acts allegedly committed since 1993, and five counts of bribery, allegedly in connection with attempts to interfere with criminal investigations. There was no mention of inciting riots, initially cited by Mahathir to explain why Anwar was arrested under the ISA, which permits detention without trial. Conviction for corruption carries a maximum penalty of 20 years' jail and a fine of 20,000 ringgit ($5,260). If convicted of unnatural sex, Anwar could be jailed for 20 years and caned. He pleaded not guilty to all 10 charges.

That Anwar's alleged beating overshadowed his indictment is unfortunate for the government: Some political analysts were predicting that once he was charged in court and the precise charges were aired, he would lose the sympathy of many Malaysians.

Now, analysts fear just the opposite: a surge in street protests. Even people sympathetic to Anwar say continued clashes between police and Anwar supporters could turn ordinary folk off the former deputy premier's cause. "Malaysians don't like violence and we hate instability," says a local journalist. "Anwar will lose support if his supporters continue to take to the streets."

Mahathir confidently dismisses the movement launched by Anwar. "There are a few thousand people following him, but the majority are quite happy," he said on September 22, pointing out that most Malaysians were going about their business as usual and that even Kuala Lumpur was generally calm. "The situation in this country is still stable. The vast majority of people do not want this kind of activity," he said.

It's clear that there are fundamental weaknesses in the reformasi movement. At the moment, Anwar is acting as a lightning rod for disparate political parties and activist groups, bringing them together under one banner--opposition to the 17-year-old Mahathir administration. But with reformasi's leaders in jail and police cracking down on its followers, only time will tell whether the diverse movement can sustain itself. What's more, Anwar loyalists won't necessarily be in a position to capitalize on the anti-government sentiment. The big winner may be the Islamic opposition party Pas, which has the organization that Anwar lacks. That seemed apparent on September 27 at Pas headquarters on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. A sea of skull caps filled the meeting hall and adjoining areas as the party--which wants to make Malaysia an Islamic state--set about putting a religious gloss on the alleged injustices done to Anwar. A banner in front of the hall declared that this was a meeting of the newly created Malaysian People's Movement for Justice. As well as a dozen mostly Islamic NGOs, the movement combines two other opposition parties--the secular and multiracial Parti Rakyat and the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party--but they have very little in common with Pas.

Although the assembly was deemed illegal by the police, an estimated 10,000-20,000 turned up. Amid shouts of Allah-hu Akbar (God is Great), speaker after speaker rose to denounce the Internal Security Act. "Some of these people may be Anwar sympathizers but the bulk are Pas supporters," says a Kuala Lumpur political analyst. "This crisis will give them a lot of unexpected support."

Certainly, Anwar's calls for reform have struck a chord with devout Muslims, who have long supported him--and have resented Mahathir's consistent criticism of what he considered hypocrisy and extremism in Islamic practice. After his sacking, Anwar distanced himself from Mahathir's position, an act that analysts say won him more support among conservative Muslims. Already, the government has warned Anwar supporters not to use mosques as places in which to spread their message. Meanwhile, hinting of a split among the Malays, the influential Malay daily Utusan Malaysia lamented that it was "unfortunate that a group of theologians has been actively fanning the flames of hatred among the Muslims."

Yaakob Yahaya, 69, an avowed Pas supporter, thinks the Islamic party will benefit in the next general election, due by April 2000, at the expense of the ruling United Malays National Organization. "Umno is split and the Anwar clique will vote for us," says the rubber smallholder in Sik, Kedah state. "It will lead to a hundred Arau's." (Arau is the constituency in Perlis state where Pas defeated Umno in a by-election in July. Umno had never been defeated in Arau before.)

Umno leaders dismiss the possibility. "The reformation movement died the minute Anwar was expelled from Umno," insists Umno division chief Shahrir Samad. "And when push comes to shove, the Malays will unite around Umno in a general election."

But will they? Listen to Halim, a small businessman from Penang. "I have voted for Umno all my life but not now," he says indignantly. "We may be small, we may be poor, but we can always vote."