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"Anwar tapped into a vein of discontent that no one knew was there," says a Western diplomat in Kuala Lumpur. That sentiment won't disappear simply because Anwar does, a point he seemed to acknowledge in his last words of advice to aides--to appreciate how the distribution of tapes and faxes helped bring down the Shah of Iran nearly two decades ago. But, say aides, Anwar's true aim was to force a debate within UMNO itself over Mahathir's rule, in the apparent hope that such a rift would widen after his arrest. Party members say that argument has begun--largely between older Mahathir stalwarts and younger members incensed over the arrest of youth wing leaders--and will likely continue in the run-up to internal party polls scheduled for next year.

Analysts agree that if elections were held now, UMNO would almost certainly lose its two-thirds majority in parliament. That doesn't mean, however, that Mahathir does not still command loyalty. "The party hierarchy is very strong," notes Muzaffar. "And in the end, what the rank-and-file understand is power." The Prime Minister has already taken steps to purge the ranks of his enemies and has even called on youth wing members to demonstrate against Anwar. Given the lack of any rivals of Anwar's stature, it's unclear in any case whom dissidents would rally behind.

Unlike the military in neighboring Indonesia, whose May revolution is constantly cited by Anwar supporters as an inspiration, the Malaysian armed forces are not politicized and will not likely disobey orders. (Authorities can, however, be as aggressive as their Indonesian counterparts: the "water" sprayed on demonstrators last week was laced with an acidic substance that stung the eyes and skin.) In fact, the drumbeat of criticism may sound loudest abroad, where Anwar was renowned for his friendships with officials and the media: messages of support for the detained leader have arrived from Indonesia and South Africa, while countries from Australia to the United States have deplored his arrest. (World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz even warned that Malaysia ran the risk of sanctions similar to those imposed on apartheid-era South Africa.) Such critiques, though, will likely only harden Mahathir's resolve.

"It's difficult to predict what will happen because we have nothing to fall back on historically," says Khoo Kay Kim, a professor of history at the University of Malaya. "It could go either way." The vital difference between Indonesia and Malaysia--and between postcolonial contemporaries Suharto and Mahathir--is the vast gulf in prosperity between their citizens. Malaysians still boast an average income nearly four times that of their battered neighbors--an achievement that the PM must maintain if he is to bottle up dissent indefinitely. For now Mahathir has blasted former Finance Minister Anwar--a darling of Western fund managers--for mishandling the economy and taken radical steps to wall off Malaysia from the outside world. But if, as many expect, Mahathir's more unorthodox policies fail as well, what seem mere doubts today could become the seeds of his downfall.

Reported by John Colmey and David Liebhold/Kuala Lumpur

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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