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Friends Indeed

Anwar has reformist sympathizers in the region


By Michael Vatikiotis in Jakarta, Ben Dolven in Singapore and Rodney Tasker in Bangkok


October 8, 1998

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T he banner read: "Mahathir = Suharto." To Malaysian diplomats, nervously watching hundreds of Indonesians demonstrating outside the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta, the message could not have been more direct. The September 23 protest was organized by the newly formed Indonesian Committee for Solidarity with Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's former deputy premier who had been arrested three days earlier. But on top of demanding justice for Anwar, the committee also declared that the reform movement which toppled former Indonesian President Suharto was moving with all the force of a monsoon across the Strait of Malacca.

"Anwar will win because the winds of change are blowing too strong in Malaysia," asserts Nasir Tamara, a founder of the committee. "He has shown the courage to fight and we all need him to strengthen democracy in Southeast Asia." Nasir is also a leading member of the influential Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals, or ICMI, which is nominally headed by President B.J. Habibie, a personal friend of Anwar.

Clearly, Anwar has sympathizers in the region, making it difficult for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to garner backing among fellow Asean members for his moves against his former protege. Public and private expressions of support for Anwar have come from friends in senior government positions around Asean. These expressions of support indicate Anwar's prominent standing in the nine-country grouping. But, perhaps more significant, they reveal a network of younger-generation politicians who have been working quietly across borders to promote a more liberal order in Southeast Asia.

In addition to his friendship with Habibie, Anwar also has friends among some of Indonesia's most important Muslim leaders, including Abdurrahman Wahid and Amien Rais, who also played key roles in Suharto's downfall. "ICMI feels Anwar is the only leader who truly understands Indonesia," says ICMI's Nasir. "That's because of his ability to speak and read Indonesian and the friendships he has here."

In the past five years, Anwar and his advisers have worked closely with Indonesian reformers in ICMI in fashioning an agenda to promote civil society and a moderate brand of Islam. This collaboration, they claim, contributed to the pressure on Suharto to resign.

Indonesian activists were quick to return the favour. Ten days after Suharto resigned on May 21, Nasir was in Kuala Lumpur to address students at the University of Malaya, as well as a group of Anwar supporters, about the Indonesian reform movement. Shortly after that, Anwar's camp adopted the Indonesian reformasi slogan in implicit criticism of Mahathir's 17-year rule. It was at this point, Anwar suggests in a statement videotaped before his arrest, that Mahathir became alarmed at the prospect of reformasi catching on. After Anwar was sacked on September 2, former Indonesian Finance Minister Mar'ie Muhammad, who has just been appointed adviser to President Habibie, visited Anwar in Kuala Lumpur to show his sympathy.

The links between Indonesian and Malaysian politics hark back to Malaysia's pre-independence period when the fiery nationalist speeches of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, were played in Malay villages and his picture hung everywhere. Now a Malaysian leader has caught Indonesians' imagination.

It's a connection Mahathir is finding hard to break. First, Minister of Rural Development Annuar Musa was sent to Jakarta to explain Mahathir's actions against Anwar to members of Habibie's cabinet. But one Indonesian minister said that he avoided meeting the Malaysian envoy. Then, former Deputy Premier Ghafar Baba, who lost his position to Anwar in 1993, flew to Jakarta, where he tried to defend Mahathir's actions to the Indonesian media.

Ghafar, a veteran Mahathir ally, only seems to have riled the Indonesians even more. At a Jakarta press conference on September 27, he said that if Indonesians liked Anwar so much they could have him. "Maybe he is more fitting to be a leader in Indonesia, because I heard that it is okay to be homosexual here, but in Malaysia it is against the law," Ghafar said, referring to allegations about Anwar's sexual behaviour. In response, two Indonesian members of parliament urged the Malaysian embassy to recall Ghafar.

Reaction to Anwar's detention starkly etches the generational divide in regional politics. Anwar's ties with many Asean politicians of his own generation were forged during the turbulent period of student activism in the mid-1970s. In the mid-1990s, Anwar worked closely with younger-generation leaders in Thailand such as Surin Pitsuwan and Sukhumbhand Paribatra, now foreign minister and deputy foreign minister respectively, to draw up a new vision of Southeast Asia as a more open, liberal community.

The strength of these ties was conveyed by the sense of loss in Sukhumbhand's comments to the REVIEW after Anwar's arrest: "I regret that this has happened to a personal friend. But because he is relatively young, he should in the future be able to serve his country again in some other capacity." Surin has spoken of the shared democratic values of members of their generation.

The Thai interest in Malaysia is more than philosophical. In southern Thailand, where ethnic Malays claim Anwar as a son of the soil by dint of historical family ties, locals are saying prayers for him in mosques. Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai has said he was "concerned" about the situation in Malaysia, and other officials are more explicit: They fear unrest could spread to Thailand's four predominantly Muslim provinces in the south.

Few of Anwar's supporters in the region give credence to the allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against him. "The action against him was heavy-handed and most Indonesians don't believe the allegations," says Marzuki Darusman, deputy head of the Indonesian Human Rights Commission.

In Singapore, where few government officials have close personal ties to Anwar, public reaction to his detention has been cautious. His background as an Islamic student radical has long made many Singaporeans circumspect about a possible Anwar government.

Privately, officials in the city-state bemoan Malaysia's turn toward unpredictability. When Mahathir fired Anwar, orderly political succession--a major concern of Singaporeans--went out the window. Singapore officials know they have to deal with Malaysia, and suddenly that's become a more complicated task.

But publicly, they are constrained by their desire to keep already tense relations with their nearest neighbour from worsening. Their immediate hope is that the street protests in Kuala Lumpur won't boil over into more widespread unrest.

Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew has offered a five-to-one bet that wouldn't happen: "I'm not saying Anwar Ibrahim hasn't got a following," he said on September 20, the night of Anwar's arrest. "What I'm saying is that there are institutional checks and balances in the system that will not allow civil order to be upset."

The regional discomfort over Anwar's treatment could make it harder for Mahathir to work with his Asean neighbours at a time when he needs their support. His decision to adopt currency controls to tackle Malaysia's economic crisis has left him in the cold with many Western financial institutions. Privately, American diplomats around the region can barely contain their anger at the man they see as undermining adherence to the International Monetary Fund's orthodoxy of high interest rates and open markets.

Although Singapore's Lee said he felt more sad for Mahathir than Anwar "because I can understand how difficult it is for Dr. Mahathir," no other Asean leader has lent the Malaysian prime minister open support. All eyes will be on the meeting of leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to be held in Kuala Lumpur in November.

Attendance at the Apec summit will show whether Mahathir has managed to convince the world that his protege needed to be disgraced. The REVIEW has learned from government officials in Jakarta that Mahathir asked President Habibie to come to Kuala Lumpur a few days before the meeting begins. But Habibie's advisers suspect a bid to draw support and sympathy away from Anwar. They are advising the president to send Foreign Minister Ali Alatas to the meeting, instead.