Sunday, June 29, 2008

Democracy Part XIII: Anwar Ibrahim Flees Malaysia's Democracy

Democracy is flourishing in Malaysia lately. After returning in triumph following a vindication on the charges of sexual corruption, Anwar Ibrahim and his political allies appeared poised to become a potent force in Malaysia--perhaps even strong enough to overturn the politics of preference and strong arming that had marked Malaysia throughout the term of his predecessor and former mentor Mahatir Muhamed. "In the general election in March, Mr Anwar led an opposition alliance to considerable gains. They won control of the legislatures in five out of the country's 13 states, and an unprecedented 82 of the 222 seats in the House of Representatives. The ruling National Front saw its worst showing in decades, prompting calls for the prime minister to resign." Malaysia's Anwar Seeks Sanctuary, BBC News Online, June 29, 2008.

But something too good to be true usually is. And political patterns are difficult to break. And so it is in Malaysia. Today Anwar Ibrahim sought the protection of the Turkish embassy to avoid arrest, torture and potential death at the hands of his enemies. "Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has sought refuge in the Turkish embassy in Kuala Lumpur. He told the BBC he had gone to the embassy because he was afraid of being arrested or assaulted." Malaysia's Anwar Seeks Sanctuary, BBC News Online, June 29, 2008.

But as it did a decade ago, sex and politics again appear to doom Anwar within the electoral culture of Malaysia. And no wonder. As he did a decade ago, Anwar sought to rise to those heights by unveiling systems of institutionalized corruption within the state apparatus and its allies.

"This is because there is growing support for the People's Alliance [group of opposition parties] among members of parliament ... the government is under threat and there is also a lot of disgruntlement among the Malaysian public against the abuse of power and economic woes," he said. "I have also made it known that I have in my possession, documents implicating the inspector-general of police and the attorney-general in misconduct, including the fabrication of evidence in the cases launched against me in 1998 and 1999. Anwar said those involved had allegedly tampered with evidence.

Anwar Ibrahim Faces Sodomy Inquiry, Al Jazeera, June 28, 2008.

Instead, again, Anwar Ibrahim is to be made the victim of a conflation of sexual and political corruption. For a reminder of those events, see Larry Catá Backer, "Emasculated Men, Effeminate Law in the United States, Zimbabwe and Malaysia," Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2005. "Earlier, Mr Anwar rejected a new allegation of sodomy made by a member of his staff, describing it as a complete fabrication to discredit him. He says the claims by a 23-year-old are designed to block his political resurgence after success at the polls." Malaysia's Anwar Seeks Sanctuary, supra. And the likelihood of its success might be measured by the speed with which Anwar fled to the Turkish embassy. Ibrahim declared that "he was "seeking personal protection because of my fear of my personal safety in case they arrest [me], and I don't want to repeat the assault and near death under custody of the... Malaysian police"." Malaysia's Anwar Seeks Sanctuary, supra.

The timing was exquisitely suspicious: by the terms of his remaining conviction, Anwar had been barred form political office only through April 15, 2008. Democratic participation, then, is available to all in Malaysia, unless, of course, you happen to be a presence important enough to threaten the current establishment. For them, a perversion of corruption tends to do the trick. And the saddest thing is that the state apparatus did not even bother to change the script from the last (and successful) effort to derail Anwar's quest for power. ""I'm now eligible to contest the elections, so they have to fabricate the same script being repeated in my earlier case in 1998, 1999," Mr Anwar added. The latest claims against him came from an aide who has worked alongside him from the beginning of the year." Id.

So much for American efforts to foster a "dream team" of authoritative Muslim leaders espousing a form of what in the West is called "soft Islam." So Paul Wolfowitz once described Anwar. Paul Wolfowitz, Anwar Ibrahim, Time Magazine June 29, 2008 (as part of the Time 100 influential global leaders for 2008). Wolfowitz recalled the man in 1998 immediately before his arrest as a:
devout Muslim leader was an impressive and eloquent advocate of tolerance, democracy and human rights. So we were shocked by his arrest and trial in 1998 on charges of corruption and sodomy. I felt his real "crime" had been to challenge Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose impressive record will be forever stained by his treatment of Anwar. I joined Senator Sam Nunn and others to speak out in Anwar's defense. When he was finally released from prison in 2004, U.S. policy on Iraq was unpopular in Malaysia, and Anwar was harshly critical. It would have been easy for him to disown our friendship, but he is not that kind of person. He kept the channels of dialogue open, even while making clear our disagreements.
Id. Whatever his religious ideals, his actions suggested an adherence to inclusive politics that must have frightened the opposition tremendously. Just weeks before his arrest, he spoke of the strength of his campaign in terms of
a strength of a more multiracial, interreligious formula. We are forged together on the basis of our belief in democratic reforms. After all, this is not something alien. This is what was promised to us when we achieved independence in 1957. Coupled with this multiracial, interreligious agenda, we talk about a new Malaysian economic agenda. We have lost competitiveness. There is no independent judiciary. People tend to ignore the fact that a true democratic administration would give people more confidence. The elections here were never free and fair. We don’t have free media. I don’t have 10 minutes of airtime on local television. Even the electoral process was clearly fraudulent. But with all that, we still made an extremely impressive showing. They term it now a political tsunami.
Seven Questions: Anwar Ibrahim, Foreign Policy (April 2008). And so the circle closes. The corruption drama of the late 1990s, in which Anwar paid the price for suggesting political corruption within the Malay state apparatus by being turned into the personification of that very corruption himself in both his personal and representative capacity (sodomy and political corruption) has come back to define the corruption of Malay democracy ten years later. Anwar Ibrahim was well aware of this. But he was also aware of the need for closure of the earlier corruption charges if he had any chance of reaching the highest state office. And so this campaign season had started with his efforts to clear his name of any lingering doubts about his lack of corruption. But those efforts brought retaliation in the form of a variant of the earlier charges--this time by a 23 year old male assistant resulting in a police report and ther start of an investigation eerily similar to that 10 years earlier. That police report, Ibrahim stated, serves as an ""attack me in retaliation for evidence I have recently obtained implicating IGP Musa Hassan and the AG Gani Patail in misconduct including fabrication of evidence in the cases launched against me in 1998-1999." Statement by Anwar Ibrahim, Dr. A. X. Jayakumar ADUN Sri Andalas, Blog June 29, 2008. And as well Ibrahim is aware of the need to press on if he is to have a political future. "This vile attack will not prevent me from releasing this dossier to the public." Id.. But in the end, this quest will expose the weakness of Malaysian democracy and the strength of assertions of sexual and political corruptions. Anwar Ibrahim ends his latest statement with a warning and a challenge:
"I urge the Malaysian people to stand against the repressive forces that will be unleashed by the government in the coming days and weeks. We expect the media, the judiciary and the police force to all come under the direct and unchecked control of the executive. My fellow Malaysians - we took a bold step forward on March 8th towards a new dawn for freedom and justice for all of our citizens. This people’s movement for change must go on with all of our strength and conviction."
Id. I have my doubts that under Malaysia's controlled democracy, that this will be possible. The control, here, is not so much about policy as about entry. This is a democracy of cultural doublespeak--though everyone understands clearly what is going on. The language is cultural and religious--sin, uncleanliness, perversion. The character of the political actor serves as proxy for political values just as the vocabulary of corruption serves as the basis for political discourse. Anwar Ibrahim understood that the last impediment to his political success required the expurgation of the last remnants of the doubt about his sexual cleanliness. That required the downfall of the men who had engineered the earlier sexual corruption charges. Ultimately that cleaning up would target Mahatir Mohamed himself, and open the space necessary to attack those opponents on the basis of their own corruption. But Anwar didn't play the usual game. For Anwar there was plenty of political and economic corruption, but no allegations of sexual corruption. Ten years in the wilderness did little to teach him the fundamentals of Malaysian political culture--political corruption requires a nice leavening of sexual corruption to have it rise to a level of significance.

But his opponents understood. They even understood that the fabrication need not be elegant. Crude and direct would do. His opponents also understood that Anwar was unstoppable unless those very sexual charges could be reinvented. That would serve to cast a fatal doubt on Anwar's assertions that the earlier charges were fabrications. And a little political corruption would add the necessary addition to completely ruin a character that took a decade to rehabilitate. Khalid: I Advised Anwar's Brother to Quit, The Star Online, June 29, 2008 ("Selangor Mentri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim said he had personally suggested Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s younger brother Rusli quit his post as special adviser to Kumpulan Darul Ehsan Bhd (KDEB) president Datuk Abdul Karim Munisar. . . . “It is a tough and sad thing (the resignation) but as a transparent and responsible state government we cannot have even the perception that there is a conflict of interest (in the state administration),” he told reporters after launching the 1,000 Youths Gathering programme here on Sunday." Id.). The best way to construct the reality of a fabrication is to repeat it. So, it was only a matter of finding the appropriate subject--no women this time, just good old fashioned and highly prohibited man on man sex. And that is precisely what the opposition did. And did well enough to frighten Anwar into the Turkish Embassy.

Anwar Ibrahim has again to confront old demons--and demons not of his own creation. They are meant to suggest that he is not only personally and politically corrupt but also, for the first time now, that Anwar Ibrahim is unable to control himself, that is, control his appetites. This is something I predicted almost two years ago. Larry Catá Backer, Of Sodomy and Corruption: Sex, Politics, Religion and Law in Malaysia, Law at the End f the Day, August 1, 2006 (""At the end of the day sex may well dog Anwar the way economic corruption will likely dog Mahatir. Both serve as the great Achilles heel to their political ambitions in a country whose Islam is no longer the tolerant version of an all too brief Umayyad Spain, the flower of which was as much crushed by Islamic reactionaries as the Christian reconquista.).

And Anwar was vulnerable within Malay political culture--not merely because of the lingering doubts left from the last tangle with the sex and political corruption charges of a decade ago, but because he was insisting on breaking the rules of political engagement within the dominant Malay political culture. See Larry Catá Backer, Abdullah Badawi, Anwar Ibrahim and the Politics of Race , Ethnicity and Affirmative Action in Malaysia Law at the End of the Day, March 9, 2008. Here was a man, a Malay and a Muslim, unafraid to build coalitions among minority groups, and unburdened with the need to posture based on the dictates of politically motivated Islamics divines or ethnically motivated indigenous Malays. This is clearly too much. People will continue to vote, and there may even be room for choices among candidates, but the power to select those candidates, and the ability of candidates to veer too far form established policy has been reduced a bit indeed. In Malaysia, when one means policy one speaks the language of sex and corruption. Everyone understands the charade--and participates within its farce as if they believed what their faculties knows is a veil over the real contests. Now this is democracy!

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