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Making a martyr of Anwar Ibrahim

By Amina Rasul

“Political murder!” cried Azizah Ismail, wife of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, accusing the ruling United Malay National Organization (UMNO).

Once more, Datuk Anwar, former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, is at the center of controversy in Malaysia. In the process of consolidating his power base to challenge the ruling party, UMNO, Datuk Anwar was recently accused of sodomy by his 23-year-old aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan. To spice up the already intriguing scenario, Azlan is known to have close ties with current Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Hmmm. Déjà vu. More than a decade ago, a similar charge landed the former deputy PM in jail for six years. The conviction was overturned by the Malaysian Supreme Court in 2004, allowing Datuk Anwar to leave the country for fellowships in London and Washington DC. Then as now, Anwar rejects the charges as politically motivated, part of a conspiracy to bar him from the road to power, a threat to the Barisan Nasional (National Front, the ruling coalition headed by UMNO) which has governed Malaysia since 1957.

The 1998 sodomy charge came at the peak of the power struggle between Prime Minister Mahathir and Datuk Anwar, his deputy. Concurrently appointed as Finance Minister, Datuk Anwar favored foreign investment, trade liberalization and free markets while Mahathir wanted currency controls. While Mahathir criticized the West for Malaysia’s economic plight, blaming currency speculators (like George Soros), Anwar’s supporters were blaming corruption and nepotism for Malaysia’s economic woes.

Is there truth behind the sodomy charges? A survey by the independent Merdeka Center research firm found just 6 percent of respondents believed the allegations and nearly 60 percent viewed it as politically motivated. In a separate poll by the independent news website, Malaysiakini, 94 percent of its respondents believed Anwar was the victim of a conspiracy. More than 7,000 people turned up at an impromptu rally on Tuesday night in support of Anwar.

As a political conspiracy, this was badly planned—as was the first one. The conspirators could not find any whiff of corruption in 1998, so they had to resort to this scurrilous charge? So unbelieving were the electorate that Datuk Anwar’s wife and daughter won when they ran for parliament.

The opposition, spearheaded by Anwar’s People’s Justice Party, has won a significant number of seats in the last election. Anwar’s coalition has been wooing defectors from the ruling National Front. When—not if—Anwar wins a seat in parliament, he will be a formidable opponent for leadership of the Malaysian government. The ruling UMNO party has been weakened by its poor showing in the March elections. Anwar’s three-party coalition won 82 seats, reducing Barisan’s, the National Front’s, lead to a mere 30-seat majority. The opposition now controls five of Malaysia’s 13 states.

Heralded as a voice for democracy, he is an effective bridge between East and West. His friends from the around the globe and from the Islamic world are rallying to his side, calling on the Malaysian government to “facilitate a swift, transparent and just resolution to this issue” as well as to ensure his safety.

Highly regarded internationally, Datuk Anwar is viewed as one of the leaders of an Asian Renaissance. An intellectual who has publicly acknowledged the influence of Jose Rizal, he has many admirers in the Philippines. One of his most ardent admirers is former President Joseph Estrada.

President Erap, who hosted Anwar at a small dinner in his home last month, defended Anwar when the latter was imprisoned. Anwar, in turn, offered moral support when President Erap was jailed. Erap draws the similar patterns of their lives: both were imprisoned, their wives and children ran for political office and won, both are now free. Erap told me last month, “and now Anwar is on the way to the top!” You fill in the blank.

Datuk Anwar’s many Moro friends are hopeful that when he returns to parliament, we might find a Malaysian leadership that would be more sympathetic to our situation in the Mindanao. (Perhaps not too quick to withdraw its peacekeeping forces when pressure mounted.) In the few conversations that I have had with him (in Washington DC, in Doha and in Manila), he struck me as one who had followed the developments in the Bangsamoro homeland very carefully and understood what had to be done.

I hope and pray for the best—for Datuk Anwar, for Malaysia, for Mindanao, for the region. That is all I can do. Thinking about Datuk Anwar keeps me distracted from the daily news circulating about the possibility of imminent war in Mindanao, worries about the withdrawal of the Malaysian contingent and the end of the GRP-MILF agreement on the International Monitoring Team in September.

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