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Paris, Monday, November 2, 1998

Malaysia Puts Anwar, And Itself, in the Dock

As Trial Opens, a Nation of Witnesses Prepares to Scrutinize Its Government


By Thomas Fuller International Herald Tribune
KUALA LUMPUR - Soon after the gates of a red-brick colonial-era courthouse open here Monday morning, the police will lead Anwar Ibrahim, the ousted deputy prime minister of Malaysia, into a wood-paneled courtroom filled with lawyers, family members and reporters.

 At a signal from a bailiff, Judge Augustine Paul will open the most sensational trial in Malaysian history, a politically electrified case of alleged sodomy and corruption.

 Mr. Anwar, represented by a team of high-profile lawyers, is expected to spend at least six months in the courtroom defending his name and political career.

 Even if he is acquitted, there will be more to come: The attorney general of Malaysia announced over the weekend that fresh sex-related charges would be filed against Mr. Anwar once the current case was over.

 While all eyes will be on Mr. Anwar, who remains widely popular and who until two months ago was Malaysia's second most powerful man, also on trial will be Malaysia itself, its strict style of government, laws used to clamp down on dissent and its powerful police force.

 ''All of us, no matter how remotely connected we are to his case, are on trial in one way or another,'' said Kadir Jasin, editor of the English-language daily The New Straits Times, in his column Sunday.

 Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad will be judged for his role in dismissing Mr. Anwar in September, Mr. Kadir said, and the police will be judged over the apparent beating of Mr. Anwar while he was in detention.

 The larger question surrounding Mr. Anwar's trial is whether Malaysia's political structure - under fire at home and abroad - will survive the crisis.

 ''It's going to be a real test, not only of the judiciary but of public confidence in the government as well,'' said Lim Kit Siang, opposition leader in Parliament.

 Also complicating the case is the retraction of guilty pleas by two men convicted of being sodomized by Mr. Anwar. Both have said their pleas were coerced.

 The political crisis started with the dismissal of Mr. Anwar on Sept. 2 and the subsequent countrywide protests in support of him.

 But many Malaysians say the crisis is no longer defined as a face-off between supporters of Mr. Anwar and supporters of Mr. Mahathir. Mr. Anwar's treatment has become a symbol of what is seen by some as the excessive paternalism of the state.

 ''This story is no longer about Anwar Ibrahim,'' Rehman Rashid, author of a best-seller, ''A Malaysian Journey,'' wrote recently. ''Even those convinced of his guilt are troubled and disquieted by what is happening to their nation.

''Malaysians are losing the last shreds of faith in their government, its media and its instruments of authority.''

Signs of frustration with the government are evident throughout the country: Thousands of protesters have demonstrated every week for the past two months in Kuala Lumpur; dozens of Internet sites offering alternative views have sprouted up, and newspapers critical of the government, almost all of them without official licenses, have soared in circulation.

 Protests against the government have filtered into the artistic community, too. In Kuala Lumpur, a theatrical group put on a show over the weekend called ''You Have 10 Minutes'' - the words that police often use when breaking up protests in Kuala Lumpur.

 Perhaps a broader measure of disaffection, however, can be found within the United Malays National Organization, the governing political party.

 Top party leaders have been dispatched to rural areas - the party's traditional power base - to explain the dismissal of Mr. Anwar and why he has been put on trial. But the officials have been jeered and, in one case, whisked away after police said they could not guarantee their protection.

 The party recently conducted a poll of its members, asking how they felt about the dismissal of Mr. Anwar. More than 70 percent said they disapproved.

 During Southeast Asia's economic boom, Malaysia's policies and laws were hailed by many as a means to hold together multiracial developing nations. But as economies have collapsed, the region's political landscape has changed. Malaysia has been criticized by its closest neighbors for the way it has handled Mr. Anwar's case.

Politically, Malaysia appears more and more out of step. Kuala Lumpur's policies stand in sharp contrast to those of neighboring Indonesia, a country linked by language and history and which until this spring shared Malaysia's philosophy of government.

 But since public protests helped bring down President Suharto of Indonesia in May, Jakarta has begun to accept change. As Indonesia passes laws ensuring the right to protest, police in Malaysia continue to break up demonstrations and to warn protesters not to bring children to demonstrations because ''injuries including death could occur to children exposed to tear gas.''

 And as Indonesia allows publications shut down during the Suharto era to reopen, the government of Malaysia retains tight controls on the press.

 Perhaps most striking is the fact that, unlike unrest in other parts of Southeast Asia, Malaysia's political crisis has little to do with food prices or poverty. The country remains one of the most affluent in the region, and for many Malaysians the crisis has meant little more than postponing the purchase of a car or eating less at restaurants.

 ''You don't have a situation like in Indonesia of acute, pressing economic problems,'' said Mr. Lim, the opposition leader. ''Anwar symbolizes the politics of greater accountability and openness. And when they see Anwar being crushed, their hopes are being crushed.''