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Out Of The Bottle

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Rocked by protests, Malaysia jails Mahathir's former deputy. But the newly vocal reform movement may prove more difficult to contain

The seeds of doubt are planted in the dark. "We're not sure who's wrong and who's right," whispers a young man, sitting apart from the crowd that has gathered outside a schoolhouse in the tiny, moonlit town of Batu Laut. Inside Ibrahim Ali steps to the podium. Stout and authoritative, a member of the powerful Supreme Council of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), he spends more than an hour soothing the doubts of 100 local party cadres. In ringing tones he hails the achievements of Malaysia and its leader, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Then he turns to his true task, defending the arrest of Mahathir's onetime protege, Anwar Ibrahim, three days earlier. His voice rises as he mocks Anwar's pleas of innocence. "If Dr. Mahathir hadn't acted," Ibrahim repeats the mantra of his leader, "the nation would have been endangered." Throughout the room, heads nod in approval.

Near midnight Ibrahim's shiny new Mercedes pulls out of the dirt schoolyard. "Good crowd, eh?" he grins, lighting a cigarette. "Since the party sacked Anwar, I've been doing this every night."

But it will take more than a war of words for the powers-that-be to quell the doubts of ordinary Malaysians. Dumped as Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar had been able to whip up a crowd estimated at more than 80,000 on Sept. 20, calling for Mahathir's resignation. That night, as police helicopters circled overhead, hooded commandos burst into Anwar's home in Kuala Lumpur and whisked him off to Bukar Aman police headquarters. At least 14 others--including the head of UMNO's youth wing, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi--were soon rounded up as well. Few doubt that Anwar had in the weeks since his ouster opened a Pandora's box in Malaysia. The question now is whether Mahathir and his allies have managed to close the lid for long.

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POLL Can Wan Azizah Ismail sustain her husband's reform movement?
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October 5, 1998

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