Asia-Pacific, Headlines

POLITICS-MALAYSIA: Debate Simmers Over ‘Reformasi’ Protests

Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia, Nov 23 1998 (IPS) - A debate is raging in Malaysia over whether demonstrations in support of the nascent ‘reformasi’ movement are jeopardising the country’s stability and its prospects for economic recovery.

A private television station has televised a series of panel discussions on the nature of the almost weekly street protests in Kuala Lumpur, and its consequences for a country struggling to come out of a recession.

Malaysia’s political leadership has predictably slammed the demonstrators, labelling them violent rioters bent on creating chaos.

United States Vice President Al Gore’s praise for “the brave people of Malaysia” at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) last week riled the Malaysians authorities even further.

His remarks, made at a speech before Asia-Pacific businessmen and Malaysian officials, provoked protests liberally published by the local press, from angry statements to full-page advertisements criticising Gore for bad manners to interference in internal affairs.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Badawi said Gore’s praise for the reformasi movement, launched by sacked Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, showed that the U.S. government supported the actions of rioters. “They (the US) are supporting a form of terrorism which should not be condoned,” Abdullah said.

The information chief of the dominant United Malays National Organisation, Dr Yusof Nor, described the anti-government protesters as traitors and pawns of foreign leaders who wish to see the country in chaos.

“Anwar’s supporters should realise that by staging anti- government demonstrations, they are rendering free service and dancing to the tune of Al Gore and the U.S. government,” Yusof Nor said.

Anti-government critics had in fact warned that Gore’s statements would backfire on the ‘reformasi’ cause because they would be used as proof that its leaders were western stooges supported by a foreign power.

Others have entered the fray, some indirectly, to portray the protesters in a bad light, indeed, as less than nationalistic.

A leading finance company has run a series of advertisements over the media reminding Malaysians to be proud of “the spirit of Malaysians” and to “raise our flag” – “coming together for Malaysia,” as the firm puts it.

“Reject violence and foreign interference,” says another full- page “community message by concerned and peace-loving citizens” in a local tabloid. The message, accompanied by a photograph of a little boy next to a Malaysian flag, exhorts readers to “let him grow up in a peaceful Malaysia”.

The subtle – and at times, not so subtle – message is that the street demonstrators are disrupting peace and national unity through their “rioting”.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was quite right when he remarked that street demonstrations to demand political change are not a Malaysian tradition, observed social analyst Tan Pek Leng in a recent commentary. “But has he asked why so many have seen fit to break tradition?” she asked.

Tan said the protests began because people were shocked and outraged by how ruthless the authorities were prepared to be to persecute Anwar.

Many feel that if Anwar could be “so demeaned and disposed of, there can be no safeguard for the ordinary citizen,” she said. “As events unfolded, it became obvious to many that the time had come to take a stand.”

Anwar is facing trial on 10 counts of sodomy, corruption using his position to get witnesses to drop their allegations. Trial proceedings were suspended during the APEC meetings to prevent public protests, though some took place anyway.

Several visiting foreign leaders, including Philippine President Joseph Estrada, Canadian Cabinet officials and former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, met with Anwar’s wife, Dr Wan Azizah Ismail, during the APEC meetings.

So far, the weekly protests in parts of the capital have continued since Anwar’s arrest in September. “It’s no longer about Anwar,” said one protester. “It is about justice.”

With elections only due in 2000, activists argue that disenchanted Malaysians have no other avenue to vent their frustrations. The media are tightly controlled and public gatherings need police permits which are often refused.

“When people have no place to express their feelings, they demonstrate,” says activist Roslan Tajudin. If they talk to the press, their views will never be heard, he points out. “They don’t have a choice,” but to take to the streets.

To sidestep curbs on public gatherings, protesters calling for reforms and Mahathir’s resignation have mingled with weekend shoppers in the capital and crowds attending prayers in certain mosques.

Given the large numbers involved in the demonstrations and the movement’s loose organisation, “what has been quite remarkable, especially in the earlier stages, has been the determination by the protesters to keep things peaceful,” says social scientist Khoo Khay Jin.

But when “men and women were dragged, beaten and kicked, then thrown into waiting trucks,” as one report put it, frustration grew. Many suspect that infiltrators have been provoking the crowds into acts of violence to discredit the reformasi movement.

Of late, police have started spraying water laced with yellow dye on protesters to make it easier for riot police armed with rattan sticks to identify and ferret out fleeing protesters.

Whether the protests degenerate into violence will depend on the behaviour of rallyists and those policing the protests.

“Much will depend on the relationship between both parties,” says Khoo, and whether channels of communication are kept open. It is only when such channels are closed that the situation turns ugly, he points out.

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