The five-year jail sentence imposed on opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim last week, writes JAMES GIGGACHER, raises serious questions about the future of Malaysia’s politics and opposition movement.
The fate of long-time opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was decided on 10 February – and along with it the increasingly slim democratic prospects for his native Malaysia. With his five-year jail sentence for sodomy, the country’s rulers aren’t so much as goosestepping but making a mad dash towards authoritarian rule … again. It may already be there, with one Malaysian MP labelling the country an ‘electoral authoritarian regime‘—elections merely giving the facade of democracy or the ‘lipstick on the crocodile’.
Ruled by a potent mix of race politics and economic development, independent Malaysia has always swayed between democracy and authoritarianism—but recent developments show that the pendulum is firmly stuck to the right. This latest swing is based on sodomy, sedition, crackdowns and corrupt courts; and a real fear among the ruling elite that the sun may be setting on their seemingly endless reign.
The Federal Court’s decision brings to a close a sorry saga beginning in 1998, when sodomy and corruption charges were first laid against the now 67-year-old Anwar (pictured). This latest ruling is based on further allegations made in 2008 and overturns a successful acquittal in 2012. With no more room for appeal, this will be Anwar’s third jail sentence and second for sodomy.
‘In bowing to the political powers, you have effectively murdered the judiciary. You chose to remain on the dark side,’ he wrote. He later declared on his website: ‘You have sold your souls to the devil’.
The claims aren’t that far-fetched. A joint 2000 report from four major international legal organisations found a worrying lack of clear separation between the courts and government in the Southeast Asian nation.
‘There are well-founded grounds for concerns as to the proper administration of justice in cases which are of particular interest to the government,’ the group, including the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), reported back from its mission.
‘This is only a small proportion of the total number of cases which arise, but they are of vital importance to the well-being of the entire system of justice in Malaysia.’
Speaking to Voice of America after last week’s verdict, the ICJ’s Asia-Pacific regional director Sam Zarifi, said the judicial processes in the Anwar case appeared more about politics than a fair trial.
‘The timing of the case and the speed with which they moved through the conviction and the sentencing and not hearing the mitigation case at all … all this suggests very strongly that there is a political motive to this [and] that this is not a proper case,’ said Zarifi.
The ICJ also noted that the trial assumed guilt from the outset, and ‘the burden was on Anwar Ibrahim to prove that he had a credible defence’. There can be little doubt that Anwar’s protracted trial and conviction have a political edge. Section 377B of Malaysia’s penal code, which criminalises same-sex relations, is a relic of British colonial rule and a clear violation of international human rights law.
Even if Anwar did engage in a sexual act with former political aide Mohamad Saifal Bukhari Azlan—an accusation he has always denied—only seven sodomy cases, two involving Anwar, have been prosecuted since the country’s independence from British rule in 1957. There’s also the matter of questionable evidence with corrupted semen samples that were only retrieved from the accuser’s body 36 hours after the incident was said to have taken place, kept in an unrefrigerated cabinet by the police and submitted for DNA analysis two days later. Add to that the mysterious meetings that the accuser took with Anwar’s main political rival, Najib Razak, and the police commissioner days before the sexual act allegedly took place.
‘All neutral observers agree that politics was the key consideration,’ says Dr John Funston from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific in an interview with specialist Southeast Asia studies website New Mandala .
As the face of ‘cleaner politics’, Anwar has been in the sights of Malaysia’s rulers for the better part of two decades. Funston notes that as far back as 1998, and the reformasi movement which called for an end to corruption and cronyism, a senior officer in Malaysia’s intelligence agency the Special Branch, told the US embassy in Malaysia that they were ‘going to file charge after charge… so Anwar spent the next 100 years in jail’.
Human Rights Watch calls this hounding of the former deputy prime minister an erosion of human rights. They blame Prime Minister Najib Razak and his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)—the keystone in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
“Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has persisted in its politically motivated prosecution of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at the expense of democratic freedoms and the rights to non-discrimination and privacy for all Malaysians,” says their deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.As shocking as the court’s decision is, it is hardly surprising considering the perilous path Malaysia has been charting for a number of years.
In 2011 there were positive moves towards democratic reform under Najib, including ending a decades-long state of emergency, amending several repressive laws, and repealing the notorious Internal Security Act, with promises to do the same with the catch-all 1948 Sedition Act.
The law gives sweeping powers to the government, and bans any act, speech or publication that brings contempt against the government or Malaysia’s nine royal sultans. It also prohibits inciting race and religious hatred, or questioning the special position of the ethnic Malay majority and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. Those found guilty could face fines and three years in jail. However, the way wide-ranging provisions of the sedition law are worded makes them almost impossible to refute in court.
This trial—the sharp edge in a larger thrust—has stabbed at the heart of the opposition movement.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. ‘At the UMNO general assembly in November 2014, following an orchestrated groundswell of claims that the Malay race was under a dire threat, Najib announced that he would not repeal the Sedition Act but actually strengthen it,’ explains Funston. ‘In 2014 over 20 sedition cases were prosecuted or investigated, directed against members of the opposition, NGOs, journalists, lawyers and even legal academics.’
This trial—the sharp edge in a larger thrust—has stabbed at the heart of the opposition movement. With Anwar behind bars, Barisan Nasional has removed the greatest threat to almost 60 years of uninterrupted rule. Anwar came within a whisker of unseating them in the 2013 general elections. In a historic victory, his Pakatan Rakyat Party took Barisan Nasional to the line, winning 51 per cent of the popular vote, but only 40 per cent of seats in parliament. Patent gerrymandering saw Barisan Nasional win the elections by 133 seats to 89.
With elections due by 2018, Malaysia’s masters clearly want to remove any risk of a repeat. It may just work. The conviction is likely to end Anwar’s direct role in Malaysian politics. In addition to five years in jail, he loses his status as an MP, and is barred from holding any political office for another five years after his release. The question now becomes: with the man seen as the only person capable of unseating Malaysia’s rulers removed, what happens next, and what does it all mean for the country’s politics and opposition movement?
Anwar may be able to influence politics from jail, as he was during his first stint in the slammer after his 1999 conviction for ‘abuse of power’. There is a sense that this latest conviction may also galvanise the opposition and its support in the country’s next election. Anwar now becomes a powerful symbol of oppression in the country.
However, what is a fairly loose and broad coalition must hold together, and it will lack the clear leader and figurehead which helped win the popular vote two years ago.The 2013 elections should have consolidated opposition forces; instead they are scratching each other’s eyes out. The situation is compounded by the lack of a clear successor to Anwar. His wife, Wan Azizah, may take the mantle, as she did during his previous incarcerations, but won’t be supported by all opposition parties. ‘Without Anwar, uniting the conflicting policies and personalities, maintaining the opposition alliance will be extremely difficult,’ says Funston.
There is also a hint of dissension in Najib’s ranks. With ongoing economic troubles and falling global oil prices, he and his government could be on the ropes. But that’s not likely to deliver a knockout blow. He and his party still control all the resources of the state – including its finances, media, security, the Attorney-General, and the Election Commission. Add to that the courts and judiciary, and that is a formidable power base not to be underestimated. As Kim Quek writes, the Anwar trial is a representation of a greater sellout for the country’s democracy and justice.
‘Now that the judiciary has virtually been taken over by the executive, and a lame duck parliament limping as rubber stamp for the executive, one wonders how much different Malaysia is from a dictatorship.’
And so, Barisan Nasional, UMNO and Malaysia’s ruling elite go marching on.