Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Strange days in Malaysia politics

Tuesday, 01 July 2008

(canberra times, Australia): Since the March general elections, Malaysians are getting used to previously inconceivable political events. A month ago, Mahathir Mohammad quit as a member of the United Malays National Organisation, the party he led for 22 years. He even called for mass resignations from UMNO.

In the past few days, the leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, has been accused of sodomy and has moved into the Turkish embassy in Kuala Lumpur to avoid being arrested.

Anwar himself turned the heat one notch higher by saying he is also the target of an assassination plot to stop him becoming prime minister.

For most Malaysians, the whole event is more deja vu than anything else. In 1998, Anwar was sacked by Mahathir as deputy prime minister for alleged sodomy and corruption. While in jail, he was allegedly beaten by the police commissioner. He spent six years in prison. He was only released after Abdullah Badawi succeeded Mahathir in 2003. Anwar's sodomy conviction was later overturned.

Now, five years on, Anwar's party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People's Justice Party), has come out of nowhere to become the largest party on the opposition bench in Parliament. Many expect PKR to take over government later this year with the help of defections from the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front).

Hence the second accusation of sodomy, during such a crucial time, has led many people to conclude it is a desperate attempt to destroy Anwar politically.

In Muslim majority Malaysia, the gravest accusations that one can make against a Muslim politician are of apostasy the formal abandonment or renunciation of one's religion or of being gay. Homosexuality is a capital offence under Islam.

Since apostasy is hard to prove, unless Anwar is photographed praying in a church, drinking alcohol or eating pork, the charge of being gay is considered ''preferable'' by his opponents. In the 1998 case, Anwar was accused of sodomy with his adopted Indonesian brother. In the current case, the accuser is one of his political aides, who has claimed Anwar sodomised him several times at various condominiums in Kuala Lumpur.

This case is curious in that the accuser was known to be close to senior BN politicians. He was a student leader at university and was known to have close relations with BN Youth leaders. Yet Anwar employed him as a political aide, apparently without checking his personal history. If this is true, then one can only conclude that Anwar's political machinery is incredibly unsophisticated or even backward. No background check on those with direct access to Anwar is mind-boggling.

Among professional cynics, the only explanation is that the whole episode is an elaborate drama directed by Anwar himself. Anwar, as the theory goes, knows that he cannot get enough MPs from the BN to defect, so he has to create a major political crisis to destabilise UMNO.

Seeking the protection of the Turkish embassy sends a clear message to the polity that the Malaysian establishment cannot be trusted to investigate the veracity of the sodomy claims.

In other words, Anwar wins either way. If he is charged with sodomy, it's political prosecution. If he is found to be innocent, expect sympathy votes and more pressure on BN MPs to abandon the ruling coalition.

Another theory making the rounds is that the sodomy accusation is the work of UMNO members who are unhappy with Badawi. They know that once it is exposed that UMNO members were behind the sodomy claims, Badawi, as leader of UMNO, would be under tremendous pressure to resign.

They believe that once Badawi is replaced, the rejuvenation process for UMNO can begin. They blame Badawi's weak leadership for UMNO's current ills and BN's mediocre electoral showing in March.

Whatever will unfold in the coming days, the only person who will be smiling will be Mahathir. Mahathir has consistently maintained that Anwar is gay and therefore not fit to be hold public office.

The recent sodomy accusation simply reinforces his view that history will exonerate him for removing Anwar a decade ago.

James Chin teaches at Monash University's Malaysia campus.

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