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ATimes: Malaysia's Anwar down, but not out
By Anil Netto

6/2/2002 10:15 am Wed

Asia Times
February 6, 2002


Malaysia's Anwar down, but not out

By Anil Netto

Once again the unmistakable chants of "Reformasi!" reverberated around Kuala Lumpur's Federal Court building as jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim made a rare public appearance.

Anwar's appeal proceedings in the highest court have not only thrust him back into the news but have also put Malaysia's Chief Justice Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah in the spotlight. Dzaiddin, who assumed office a year ago promising reforms to the judiciary, heads a three-man panel of Federal Court judges hearing the appeal.

Wearing neck and back braces and in a wheelchair, Anwar appeared to move with discomfort as he emerged at the end of the day's proceedings from the side entrance of the court building into a sport-utility vehicle parked next to a police truck. The truck blocked the crowd, who had been waiting for hours, from getting a better view of the man once touted as the heir apparent to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

But just before he entered the car, and buoyed by the loud chants from some 100 supporters waiting outside, Anwar, a broad smile breaking out, hoisted himself up the side of the automobile to acknowledge the crowd, who responded with even louder chants. He was then whisked away.

The crowd this time was much thinner, but the police were taking no chances. Some 40 personnel - including baton-wielding personnel from the light strike force - faced the court, standing in front of Anwar's supporters. Farther away, on a side road along Independence Square in front of the court complex, five police trucks, including a mobile police station, were parked discreetly. Meanwhile, tourists strolled on the square snapping away at what is touted as the tallest flagpole in the world, most of them unaware that the man who once drew tens of thousands of Malaysians in September 1998 to his cause was only just across the road in a high-stakes bid for freedom.

Anwar, sacked and jailed that month, was convicted in April 1999 of corruption for abusing his power to cover up allegations of sexual misconduct. He was sentenced to six years' imprisonment. In August 2000, he was sentenced to another nine years' imprisonment for sodomy. He has already filed an appeal against the sodomy conviction but so far, no date has been fixed for the hearing.

Anwar's appeal on the corruption charges has been rendered a non-event in the Malaysian media, and that partly explains the diminished public interest in the court proceedings. But foreign interest in the case was evident as several foreign diplomats trooped into court while journalists from the international media lingered outside. Still, the events of September 11 and the ongoing crackdown against members of the so-called Malaysian Mujahidin Group (also referred to as the Malaysian Militant Group) appear to have overshadowed the reformasi struggle.

The disunity among the opposition alliance that was cobbled together in the aftermath of Anwar's ouster has also contributed to a feeling of despondency among reformasi supporters. The multi-ethnic Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) pulled out of the alliance soon after September 11 over concerns that its membership in the alliance may be seen as support for an Islamic state. But a couple of prominent DAP personalities were also among those at court on Monday, in a reminder of how Anwar's sacking had galvanized opposition unity in the months after his arrest in 1998.

The proceedings are expected to last for a few days this week. The decision may be announced at the end of the proceedings, or judgment may be reserved for a later date. Mahathir himself is away attending the World Economic Forum in New York.

Anwar's party, the National Justice Party (Keadilan), suffered a setback when it lost a much-watched by-election in northern Perlis state last month after a campaign marred by intimidation and violence against opposition campaigners. A couple of high-profile party leaders have also resigned their positions. Keadilan, along with its alliance partners, the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the Malaysian People's Party (PRM), have also been severely handicapped by tight curbs on political rallies. Four key reformasi activists, who were among the principal mobilizers of the movement, have been detained under the feared Internal Security Act, which allows detention without trial, since April. A fifth, who had been released from detention last November with severe curbs on his civil and political rights, was rearrested last week for apparently flouting those restrictions.

For now, Mahathir, in power for 20 years and increasingly throttling the space for dissent, appears on the ascendancy. But whether his good fortune can be sustained depends to a large extent on the country's economic performance over the next year. Officials now say that the economy will grow by about 3 percent this year. But figures released on Monday suggest that not all is rosy. Total proposed capital investment approved in 2001 fell 26.5 percent to 24.7 billion ringgit (US$6.5 billion), although the foreign component fell by only 7.6 percent.

More indicative of current trends and more worrying are the investment applications (as opposed to approvals) actually received last year. Total applications received plunged 65.8 percent to 15.8 billion ringgit in 2001 (compared with 46.2 billion ringgit in 2000). Foreign-investment applications plummeted from 30.2 billion ringgit in 2000 to 10.8 billion ringgit last year. Much of the fresh investment has instead flowed to countries such as China and even Eastern Europe. Indeed, Malaysia faces a serious challenge now in trying to climb the technology ladder as countries elsewhere in Asia offer lower labor costs. The fading economy and the present disarray among the opposition parties may be behind recent speculation that the next general election, due only in 2004, may be called as early as next year.

While Anwar's star may have fallen because of his prolonged absence from the political scene - if his appeals are unsuccessful, he will be behind bars until 2009 - and the recent turn of events, few are prepared to write him off altogether. He remains an important figure to be reckoned with in the post-Mahathir era. For that reason, analysts will be following the court proceedings this week with great interest.

anwar at court