Mahathir’s reconciliation with Washington raises possibility of rehabilitation of Anwar Ibrahim

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There are no permanent enemies or allies in politics. Malaysia’s opposition front, dominated by the Islamic Party (PAS), which has joined hands with former UMNO members disenchanted with prime minister Mahathir Mohamad over his injustices to Anwar Ibrahim, are already feeling the winds of betrayal blowing. “Will he repeat his mistake?” is a question that has been on everybody’s lips since Anwar broke his silence over rumours of reconciliation with his former boss. Asked by reporters on May 22 about the possibility, he replied: “Time is a great healer and bears no malice.”

Rumours of negotiations between the two men were first carried by a report in the Far Eastern Economic Review on January 24. Anwar then denied the report as an attempt by Mahathir to soothe Malay-Muslim anger. Possibly, but many are not convinced.

Speculation has also been rife that Mahathir’s trip to the White House in May, apart from trying to shed his west-bashing image, was also to find a way out of the Anwar affair and negotiate a reconciliation.

Being the latest recruit in the US’s rehabilitation programme for dictators, Mahathir flew to Washington after having earned an invitation to meet president George W Bush. The rehabilitation programme produced better results than expected: from the recalcitrant west-basher that he had been portrayed as (and that he had deliberately made himself out to be), the 77-year-old Mahathir has turned into a US ally, insisting that his country’s friendship with the Americans goes back for many years of ‘secret’ military and political cooperation.

The US state department, in its many human-rights reports, has documented Malaysia’s intimidation of the press, its use of the police force and courts for arbitrary arrests of political opponents, and its manipulation of electoral procedure to favour the ruling party. Yet last month Bush praised Mahathir, who has run Malaysia for 21 years, for his efforts to track down al-Qaeda members. Mahathir had initially denied that there are any al-Qaeda camps in Malaysia, but after Bush’s praise he changed his mind. “At that time we were not very certain,” he said, “but we have discovered that some of these people who were active, who planned to overthrow the government by force of bombs, had activity in Pakistan and eventually to Afghanistan, where they did meet with the Al-Qaeda people,” none of which of course has been proven.

Yet despite Mahathir’s months of labour, Bush, when asked at a press conference about his predecessor’s stance that Anwar had not got a fair trial, said that the US position on this matter was the same. Bush’s reply, however, has been met with suspicion rather than relief by the opposition in Malaysia. It also lent credence to the speculation that Mahathir had gone to the White House to seek its assistance to effect a reconciliation. If such a deal can be achieved, it will neutralise most of the new breed of dissidents within the ruling coalition, as well as force the Islamic opposition onto the defensive. The ‘Islamists’, represented by PAS and its pro-Anwar allies in the National Justice Party (Keadilan) and the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), have been strengthened by Mahathir’s manipulation of the courts and police. Mahathir is eager not to let the Islamic resurgence continue; thus the theory of the US forcing reconciliation between Anwar and Mahathir should not be underestimated.

Since being dismissed, arrested and abused in September 1998, this is the first time that Anwar has hinted at his weariness of incarceration and an unending and unfair legal process. While maintaining that his trials were a conspiracy, he added: “I dread to imagine having to languish in prison for 15 years as designed by Mahathir… I am craving for my freedom and to be able to join my colleagues in our struggle for democracy and justice.”

When Mahathir went to meet Bush last month, the Malaysian delegation indulged in an orgy of boastful speeches to their delighted American counterparts, with defence minister Najib Razak unhesitatingly revealing years of secret military and political ties with the US, in a speech that he proudly titled “US-Malaysia defense cooperation: the untold story”. He said: “The reason is that for many years US and Malaysian forces have cooperated on a wide range of missions with virtually no fanfare or public acknowledgment. And, in spite of its success, our bilateral defense relationship seems to be an all too well-kept secret,” he said.

The claims of secret ties with the US, which it openly despised for years for its bully tactics, is a good lesson for Muslims who are all too often taken in by their rulers’ anti-west diatribes. On the domestic front, a few former top government leaders who have joined the opposition camp since the Anwar episode have also been exposed over their association with the government in the secret dealings. Most notable among them will be Anwar himself, the man around whom the opposition rallied, who might well have many questions to answer, since he was, for most of his 15 years in government, at the top policy-making level.

The connection is inevitable because of the fact that he established a close rapport with Washington, sometimes to the point of drawing Mahathir’s envy. Thus when the former vice-president, Al Gore, visited Malaysia for the APEC summit, he openly criticised Mahathir and supported the reformasi movement. His remarks did not go down well with Mahathir, and a national anti-America campaign was organised in response. Months later Mahathir, on the verge of being branded a pariah in the eyes of the US, met congressional leaders to plead his case as a ‘moderate’ Muslim leader, in contrast to his ‘extremist’ opponents.

Although many say that Mahathir gained from the ‘war on terror’, the fact is that he realises that in the long term Anwar’s persecution and how it was conducted will continue to linger in the minds of many; hence the current attempt to secure a deal.

If such a deal ever materialises, it will be yet another bitter pill to swallow for the opposition parties, in particular the country’s Islamic movement, led by PAS. Anwar joined Mahathir’s ruling party in 1981 after Mahathir released him from the ISA, and offered him a cabinet post. At that time, Mahathir’s aim was to kill two birds with one stone: neutralise a radical Muslim students’ movement and weaken PAS. The situation is not much different now, and calls for the same: neutralise the Malay-Muslims’ hatred for UMNO and curb PAS.

In the meantime, Anwar is awaiting a final decision from the Federal Court about his earlier conviction of corruption. Because Mahathir wants to garner public credibility, the chances of Anwar being acquitted are not to be underestimated. Acquitted or not, it remains to be seen whether he will be wise enough not to devour the second phase of the so-called ni’mah. There are lessons in this episode for Islamic activists everywhere, whatever its eventual outcome.

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