By Anil Netto
Political activity in Malaysia
has quickened with developments brewing on several fronts. Looming
large behind the scenes is the man who last year was locked away
for a total of 15 years: ousted deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.
In a dramatic episode on Wednesday night in northern Kedah state,
police fired water cannon and tear gas into a large opposition
rally in Kubang Pasu, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's constituency.
The rally was organized to mark
the defections of a clutch of members of Mahathir's United Malays
National Organization (Umno) to the opposition party Keadilan
(National Justice Party), headed by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan
Ismail. Police had earlier twice ordered the 10,000-strong crowd,
who were listening to Keadilan youth head Ezam Mohamad Noor and
other speakers, to disperse. Ezam said the crowd pelted police
with stones after the tear gas was fired. He added one person
was taken to hospital while the local Keadilan chief was arrested.
Reports said the police gave the crowd ample warnings to disperse
but they failed to do so and the speeches continued.
The use of tear gas on rural
Malays (the traditional support base of Umno) in Mahathir's seat
is bound to further alienate the grass roots, already upset with
the treatment of Anwar. Kubang Pasu lies close to Lunas, where
the ruling coalition suffered a shock by-election loss last November
in a seat it had held since independence. Ezam has vowed to intensify
pressure in Kubang Pasu and Kepala Batas, deputy premier Abdullah
Badawi's constituency, which lies in neighboring Penang state.
The drama in Kubang Pasu took
place on the same day that Suhakam (the Human Rights Commission
of Malaysia) commissioners were grilling key police personnel
during an inquiry into human rights complaints following tough
police action against an opposition rally on the Kesas highway
near Kuala Lumpur on November 5. Tens of thousands of "reformasi"
supporters trying to head for a cordoned off rally site that day
created a massive traffic jam that led to an impromptu rally on
the highway. Police moved in to disperse the crowd and detained
scores of people, sparking condemnation from human rights groups
for their allegedly heavy-handed action.
The rally in Kubang Pasu on
Wednesday night also came just days before Umno is due to hold
talks with another opposition party, PAS (Pan Malaysian Islamic
Party). Umno had wanted to confine the talks to "Malay unity"
but PAS wants the agenda widened to include major issues affecting
"national unity": the Anwar saga; federal relations with the PAS-controlled
east coast states of Terengganu and Kelantan; the misuse of public
funds to bail out selected companies; and Umno's call for the
word "Islam" to be dropped from PAS' name.
In the run-up to these talks,
the popular Internet newspaper Malaysiakini has come under fire
from ruling coalition politicians and from the mainstream media
for alleged bias in favor of the opposition and for a recent brouhaha
over its sources of funding. Malaysiakini, run by a group of independent
journalists in Kuala Lumpur since November 1999, has been a runaway
success with daily visitors exceeding 100,000.
Malaysians, long accustomed
to the pro-government reports dished out in the mainstream media,
have turned to the Internet in droves. Unlike the anonymous reformasi
websites, Malaysiakini, which carries bylines for all its reports,
has added credibility. Some analysts fear that the tough talk
against Malaysiakini in the pro-establishment media signals an
impending crackdown on the site, which has won two international
press freedom awards. It is not surprising that the authorities
are jittery over Malaysiakini's overwhelming success despite only
some 10 percent of Malaysians having access to the Internet.
In the general election in 1999,
the ruling coalition squeezed through in many constituencies with
razor-thin majorities on the back of strong support from the mainstream
media. At that point, Malaysiakini was only just starting operations.
Given the ever-increasing Internet penetration, Malaysiakini will
be reaching more and more Malaysians, providing them with stories
that would never see the light of day in the mainstream media.
Ironically, for all Mahathir's
efforts in promoting the Multimedia Super Corridor, it is the
opposition and reformasi supporters who have crowded into cyberspace
like bees to flowers. Indeed, the Internet, through a host of
websites, has played a key role in sustaining and inspiring the
reformasi movement since Anwar's ouster in September 1998.
Meanwhile, Laman Reformasi (Reformasi
website), a key site, has called on Malaysians to gather in the
city on Saturday evening. Opposition supporters are scheduled
to gather in the heart of the capital before making a complaint
to the police about the conduct of former attorney-general Mohtar
Abdullah. Mohtar, who oversaw the prosecutions of Anwar for abuse
of power and sodomy, has been appointed a federal court judge
after retiring as attorney-general - a move that was heavily criticized
by rights groups.
These recent events come hot
on the heels of rumblings of disquiet within Umno against Mahathir's
leadership that spilled out in an open forum organized by an ad
hoc Malay group criticizing the party leadership. It all spells
more pressure for the ruling coalition and a few analysts are
already privately wondering how long it will be before the authorities
resort to more desperate measures to shore up their dwindling
(Special to Asia Times