Sunday September 5, 2004

Anwarrior Ibrahim: Rebel with a cause

By RANJAN ROY

Locked in a cell in Sungai Buloh prison on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the man who once dreamed of being Malaysia's prime minister painted walls, read, did minor chores with other prisoners and joined them for communal prayers. Then as his back grew worse, Anwar Ibrahim could barely move. He used a wheelchair and wore a neckbrace and could hardly stand all consequences of a beating by Malaysia's police chief soon after he was arrested six years ago.
On Friday, a day after he was suddenly freed by a federal court, Anwar was cheered by hundreds of his supporters as he prepared to leave for Germany to get treatment for his back and with renewed hope of getting his political life back. The question in the minds of all Malaysians and Southeast Asia watchers is whether Anwar will bounce back.
Perhaps. He has shown earlier that he is a fighter.
As the Asian crisis triggered by the crashing bhat in Thailand devoured economies in 1997, a renewed hope of political resurgence grew. And as Suharto grew wobbly and finally fell, the cries of Reformasi spread from the streets of Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur and liberals grew emboldened in Malaysia. Enter Anwar Ibrahim, the renaissance man, who had spoken about civil liberties and democracy in his younger days, ready to lead the charge and end two decades of authoritarian rule.
He had announced a battle in an arena where political rallies were banned, speeches monitored by police and activists arrested without reason. But in a country where every inch of political space was filled by Mahathir Mohamad and Mahathirisms, even fighting for political oxygen was a bold move.
He spoke about building a civil society and universal values, about freedom of speech and of the judiciary, which in the years to come would trample on every notion of justice to convict a man who was framed on a rickety account of homosexual relations and corruption.
He announced that Merdeka, the Malay word for freedom from Britain, would arrive only when Mahathir left.
"It would be a tragedy indeed if this hard-earned freedom were to result in the substitution of a foreign oppressor with a domestic one, or as in George Orwell's Animal Farm, the replacement of the two-legged animal by the four-legged," Anwar wrote in The Asian Renaissance published two years before he actually fired his first public salvos against Mahathir.
Later, speaking to this reporter from prison, Anwar insisted his battle wasn't ill-timed or premature and time had come for Mahathir to go. "Previously, the ruling party was considered unassailable. Now there is serious talk of forming an alternative," he said. "In recent times, we have never witnessed such debate on corruption in high places, abuse of police powers and instruments of government."
True, Anwar's sacking brought out the biggest crowds on the streets of Kuala Lumpur and Merdeka Square, the central plaza flanking the court which condemned Anwar, quickly turned into a Ground Zero for political resistance. Incredible in a country where reporters feared discussing politics even with their closest colleagues, people increasingly voiced their opinions and flaunted their views by pasting stickers and flying flags of opposition parties on their cars.
Executives wore tie-pins of the Justice Party, the opposition group created by Anwar, new opposition magazines flooded the newsstands and new websites, accessed by thousands each day, spouted venom at Mahathir.
But as the economy rebounded, anger ebbed and Malaysians went back to their business-as-usual life.
Mahathir Mohamad has retired, but Malaysia remains without freedoms that people enjoy in most democracies and without a free press.
Perhaps, Anwar's return could revive the debate on expanding political space in Malaysia.


Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"