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The "truth," however, seems drawn from some overheated tropical potboiler. The day before Anwar's arrest, judges sentenced two men--an adopted brother of Anwar's and one of his former speechwriters--for allegedly allowing the former Deputy Prime Minister to sodomize them on several occasions (an accusation that received unusually detailed play in the prim local papers). The charges were the latest in a perplexing series that date back over a year--that Anwar had sodomized his driver, that he had seduced an aide's wife and other women, that he had leaked state secrets through his tennis partner. (The driver and the aide's sister-in-law later recanted their testimony, but now say they were pressured to do so.) Several acquaintances--including Ibrahim Ali, who shared a detention camp with Anwar in the mid-1970s--say that, until recently, they saw no signs of Anwar's alleged sexual proclivities. Many more worry that the case against him has already been so muddied that no verdict is likely to be credible.

That cynicism could pose the greatest threat to Mahathir's attempts to reassert his authority over the long term. Many of the Malaysians drawn to Anwar's rallies expressed anxiety about the heavy hand of the state. Citizens in the capital now openly question the good intentions of formerly respected institutions like the police and the press, and their anger grows with each new sign of a crackdown. "Anwar has gotten the Malay middle class to take a new look at their relationship with authority," says political scientist Chandra Muzaffar. "People who used to be passive are becoming skeptical about what the organs of state are doing."

The question remains whether anyone besides the incarcerated Anwar can forge those doubts into a true reform movement. The person Anwar has entrusted with that task, Wan Azizah, has until now won admirers more for her kindness and loyalty--even her husband's enemies refer to her as the "Angel"--than for her skills as a brawler. Yet fortitude alone cannot rally troops to the barricades, and thus far the devout housewife has shown more concern for her husband's well-being than she has a taste for challenging the authorities. She herself faces possible prosecution for expressing concern about a rumor that the police were planning to inject Anwar with the hiv virus to "prove" allegations of his homosexual dalliances. Few think she can be more than a symbol, although she plans to run against Mahathir in elections due by 2000.

Yet the cause of reform could draw strength from a more unlikely source--the computers Mahathir himself seeded across the country. Before his arrest Anwar took a whirlwind tour around Malaysia; while the official media blacked out his speeches and gave full vent to his accusers, allies turned increasingly to the Internet to spread their message. "No one over 45 knows how to use the Net, so that worked in our favor," says Khalid Jaafar, Anwar's former press secretary, who helped organize the flow of information on the Net. Soon the ex-Deputy Prime Minister's fiery speeches were being downloaded and distributed by civil servants and others. Until last week printouts were sold, along with videos, in street markets across the country.

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R E L A T E D   L I N K S :

POLL Can Wan Azizah Ismail sustain her husband's reform movement?
POLL Should Anwar have been arrested as a threat to national security?
POLL Will the currency controls help Malaysia?


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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