Sunday, 23 March, 2003, 23:30 GMT

Future uncertain for Malaysia's Anwar

By Jonathan Kent
BBC, Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia's former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, jailed for 15 years in 1999, is due to appear in court on Monday for a review of his sodomy conviction.
His original trials were controversial and brought Malaysia's criminal justice system into disrepute.
Many observers felt the trials were politically motivated and that Anwar had been denied due process.
Nevertheless, Anwar has told BBC News Online that he had not given up hope in his appeal.
"I'm keeping a very open mind, under the circumstances and given all that has taken place," he wrote from his jail cell. He remains optimistic and, according to those who know him, has not succumbed to bitterness at his treatment.
"As I've said before, time is a great healer," he said, in written answers passed via supporters on the few occasions he has been brought out of Sungai Buloh prison, where he has spent much of the last four years.
The prison has a dismal reputation. Last year dozens of inmates died from disease or as a result of its conditions.
Anwar is said to be treated better than most.
"I'm held in solitary confinement," he said. "At times I'm in excruciating pain. I'm still suffering from a back injury but the authorities have refused the surgery of my choice, and the physiotherapy that was recommended. I'm being given daily doses of painkillers."
Although a far more marginal figure now than at the time of his arrest in September 1998 - when tens of thousands took to the streets in protest - he remains arguably the most charismatic figure in Malaysian politics and one of the most able.
While many think his concurrent six and nine-year sentences have effectively ended his political future, for other Malaysians he is a prince over the water.
Asked what he planned after his release, he replied: "I'm committed to the reform process, which includes democratic rule, independence of the judiciary and social justice.
"I'll therefore continue the struggle."
Anwar then reeled off a list of what he considers Malaysia's ills - a "repressive regime, autocratic rule, muzzled media, subservient judiciary, rampant corruption, cronyism.
These are precisely why reform is crucial," he said.
But is Anwar the many to carry out that reform assuming he is freed? The cries of "reformasi" on the streets of Kuala Lumpur following his arrest, and his assiduous courting of the international media during his time as Mahathir Mohamad's deputy, led many in the West to accept Anwar as the Asian renaissance man he portrayed himself as - and Dr Mahathir as the defender of a corrupt ancien regieme.
But many Malaysians, particularly non-Muslims, see it differently.
Anwar's political roots are in radical Islam. He made his name as a student leader defacing English language signs at the University of Malaya and founding Malaysia's Islamic youth movement ABIM.
Many local Chinese people, who make up the largest ethnic group after the Muslim Malays, doubt Anwar has left his radical Islamic roots far behind.
Anwar remains steadfast in his claim that he is a unifying figure, not a divisive one.
"I've always been identified with moderate and progressive Islam and condemned extremism in all its forms," he said.
He said that his National Justice Party transcended the race politics that is a feature of Malaysian public life.
"The race equation is the basis of [government] politics and is parochial, destructive and irrelevant in a modern democratic society," he said.
But Anwar was a member of that government, which for more than 30 years has given economic privileges to Malays on the basis of race rather than need.
If he is released he will have to work hard to convince those who saw him transform from Islamic radical to government man and then to opposition hero that he is not simply opportunistic.
Although it is highly unlikely that these latest court proceedings will result in his release, rumours abound that a deal is in the offing.
Anwar denies this, just as he implies that he would not rejoin the government.
"I remain committed to democracy and the rule of law; as such the question of re-joining UMNO [Dr Mahathir's party] does not arise," he said.
The trials take place with Mr Mahathir on holiday and his anointed successor Abdullah Badawi in charge.
Whether back in the government, as an opposition leader or in jail, Anwar remains a challenge for the incoming leader as he faces his own struggle to establish his authority.