Political Murder

(The New Yorker recently published a profile of Malaysia’s Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, whom the magazine describes as “[a] once imprisoned politician” who “may be his country’s best chance for reform.” The piece below was originally posted July 17, 2008 on Never In Our Names, and provides information complementary to the New Yorker piece. The fates of most of the folk cited in this piece are updated in the New Yorker story.)

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, head of the Malaysian opposition party PKR, will apparently be released on bail following his arrest on charges of sodomizing a former aide. In Malaysia, the “crime” of sodomy—with or without consent—is punished by five to twenty years in prison, plus whipping.

When the charges first surfaced, on June 30, Anwar took refuge in the Turkish embassy, his wife describing the sodomy allegations as “political murder.” “Not again,” Anwar told reporters from inside the embassy. “It’s a repeat of the same script.” Anwar previously spent six years in prison on falsified sodomy charges filed in 1998, after Anwar broke with his mentor, then-Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, claiming the latter had responded poorly to the Asian financial crisis of 1997, wallowing in an orgy of corruption and cronyism. Anwar was ultimately acquitted and released.

Anwar left the Turkish embassy only after the government “guaranteed” his safety. The government also assured Anwar there would be “no repeat” of the events of 1998, when Anwar was brutally beaten, while shackled and blindfolded, by Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Noor. When the government suddenly announced on Wednesday that a warrant had been issued for Anwar’s arrest, protestors poured into the streets, to be dispersed with water cannon. Anwar agreed to turn himself in, but was instead arrested outside his home after returning from filing a statement with an anti-corruption agency. The latest wisdom is that Anwar is to be released on bail “soon.”

Meawhile, Mohamad’s successor as Malaysian Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has announced that he will step down in two years’ time in favor of his deputy, Datuk Seri Najib Razak. However, Malaysian private investigator P. Balasubramaniam on July 3 filed a declaration charging Najib with complicity in the murder of a woman who was the lover of one of Najib’s policy ministers, Abdul Razak Baginda—and perhaps the lover of Najib himself. The woman was allegedly killed by two of Najib’s wife’s bodyguards after she appeared outside Abdul Razak’s house in Kuala Lumpur, loudly demanding that she be “properly recompensed for his pleasure.” Najib has vehemently denied allegations that he himself bounced the bedsprings with the dead woman, Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibi, and that she had been promised $500,000 to assist in securing the purchase of French submarines. On July 4, Balasubramaniam abruptly withdrew his allegations against Najib, and then he and his family promptly disappeared. The police now opine that Balasubramaniam and his family are “overseas.”

Finally, several hours ago, blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin, editor of the online publication Malaysia Today, was charged with “criminal defamation” for his June 18 declaration implicating Najib’s wife in the murder of Altantuya. Raja Petra had previously been charged with sedition, for an April 25 Malaysia Today blog post titled “Let’s Send The Altantuya Murderers To Hell.” His website, http://www.malaysia-today.net, from which I have been drawing information for the past couple of hours, is no longer appearing on my computer.

Malaysia is a Muslim country. On July 5, Mentari Besar Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat cautioned that airing such unseemly charges as those against Anwar and Najib was contrary to the tenets of Islam.

Malay political leaders should not make allegations against each other in public as this is not condoned by Islam, [he] said.

He said allegations like sodomy and illicit sex degraded people and, therefore, were contrary to Islamic tenets . . .

“If there’s proof [of the wrongdoing], take it to court. There’s no need to make it public.

“Our religion does not approve of such allegations being made public, especially in the media, as it will be picked up by news agencies around the world,” he said here yesterday.

“Malaysia seems to have lost its dignity[.]”

Nobody much seemed to be listening. In the following days, Anwar and his accuser in fact began using Islam in their attacks on one another. First Anwar’s accuser, Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, on July 7 dared Anwar to swear on the Koran that Anwar did not sodomize him. Two days later, Anwar filed an official complaint with the Islamic Affairs Department charging that Saiful was guilty of qazaf—airing a false accusation that a person has committed adultery.

Meanwhile, this outfit, The New Straits Times Online, which seems to be functioning as sort of the New York Post of Malaysia, is breathlessly following events with as much vigor and detail as the Post devotes to, say, tracking the various animals, vegetables, and minerals that cycle in and out of Madonna’s vagina.

Malaysia is a European colonial construct, one of the most absurd on earth. It combines former British colonies on the southernmost tip of the Thai peninsula with former British colonies on the northernmost region of the island of Kalimantan. In between lies hundreds of miles of the South China Sea.

While the people of the Thai peninsula can muster a good argument for being a nation—ethnic Malays, they became predominately Muslim beginning in the 16th Century, in contrast to the Buddhist Thais to the north—the forced conjoining with the animist Dayaks of northern Kalimantan is a sick joke. All that separates these Dayaks from the Dayaks of the rest of Kalimantan is a line on a piece of paper that marked a division of spoils between the Dutch and the English. Prior to European colonialism, the people of northern Kalimantan shared about as much in common with the Malays of the Thai peninsula as Koreans share with Swedes.

As England reluctantly relinquished its hold on what would become Malaysia, it pursued a vicious 12-year counterinsurgency that basically killed off everyone in the region with any leftist tendencies. This slaughter was considered in the West such a “success” that the United States attempted, disastrously, to import into its Vietnam fiasco such Malaysian “successes” as “strategic hamlets,” “winning hearts and minds,” and the murderous paramilitary paladins of the Phoenix Program. As the years have passed, the Malaysian “success” has appeared, even to the British, more dubious: as in Iran, decimating the left opened a vaccum that was filled by Islam.

In contrast to post-1979 Iran, however, Malaysia has rarely agitated the West.

The Wall Street Journal, ever with its eye on the interests of capital, describes, in the context of the Anwar story, Malaysia this way:

The allegations cap a tumultuous year so far in Malaysia, a resource-rich, majority-Muslim nation of 26 million that has long been one of the most politically stable and economically strong countries in Asia. The nation is among the U.S.’s top-15 trading partners and is a big exporter of palm oil—used in cooking oils and biofuels—natural gas and electronics components. Intel Corp. and Motorola Inc. of the U.S. and Nokia Corp. of Finland are among the many Western companies that have big operations there.

Malaysia also compliantly provides tin, copper, and petroleum to Western transnationals, and on Kalimantan permits extensive deforestation—today primarily for the benefit of other Asian nations, like Japan—that, combined with logging operations across the border in Indonesia, have on several occasions over the past decade created forest fires of such vast magnitude they have blocked out the sun and thereby killed crops, halted air traffic for hundreds of miles around, and sickened with smoke and haze human beings and other living things in more than a dozen nations.

A piece from the Vancouver Sun aptly summarizes the genesis and timeline of the sex-soaked shenanigans that are currently roiling Malaysia.

There have been questions for several months over whether Abdullah’s chosen successor, Najib, is fit to take over the leadership. At the heart of this question is a continuing court case over the murder of a Mongolian woman translator, Altantuya Shaariibuu, the mistress of one of Najib’s policy advisers Abdul Razak Baginda . . .

These allegations were made by opposition leader Anwar last week, coupled with a demand that a full public inquiry be launched into Najib’s involvement in the Shaariibuu affair.

Retribution was not long in coming. By mid-week allegations had been made by [] officials that Anwar had committed sodomy—illegal in Malaysia—with a member of his staff. Anwar dismissed the story as “pure lies” and said it was the same kind of fabrication that was used to discredit him in 1998.

Anwar had been Dr Mahathir’s deputy and finance minister, but the two fell out over how to respond to the Asian economic crisis of 1997 . . . Dr Mahathir responded by backing trumped-up charges of sodomy and corruption against Anwar, who was convicted and sentenced to prison. It was only after Dr Mahathir resigned that a court in 2004 overturned the conviction as being without substance and freed Anwar.

But memories of betrayal and disloyalty are long in Malaysia and there remain many Dr Mahathir supporters passionately determined that Anwar will never be prime minister.

The Economist, while a conservative publication that worships at the altar of capital, generally keeps a close, if jaundiced, eye on those nations formerly forced into the British Empire. A recent Economist piece explains why it was important for the Malaysian government to again go after Anwar . . . and also why it may have misstepped:

Whatever the motive for the allegations against Mr Anwar, or for his against the government, he seems for the moment to have the political initiative. This is partly a tribute to his political skills; but another factor is the sympathy, or at least indifference, of the Malaysian public, which hoped it had heard the last of sodomy in public life. The term entered the Malaysian political lexicon in 1998, when Mr Anwar was accused of sodomy and of corruption during the tenure of the then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, whom Mr Anwar served as deputy.

The sodomy accusation was widely believed to be politically motivated, and therefore untrue. The country found itself divided and appalled. But the nature of the alleged crime was scarcely an issue. What provoked outrage were the seemingly untrammelled powers of the prime minister, the dubious role of the judiciary and the blatant bias of the press . . .

Mr Anwar was freed from jail early in the tenure of Abdullah Badawi, Dr Mahathir’s handpicked successor (and now, butt of his fierce criticism). For many this was a happy conclusion to a lurid episode, not necessarily out of any deep affection for Mr Anwar but because what was widely seen as an injustice had at last been corrected. Sodomy, it was hoped, could be forgotten. Mr Anwar was yesterday’s man.

All that changed with the March 8th election. The [government party] suffered its worst-ever electoral result and Mr Anwar leapt back to the forefront of politics. The election could be read as a vote against [the government] rather than for Mr Anwar’s disparate coalition. But he has since been portraying himself as prime minister in waiting. The sluggish pace of Malaysian politics has accelerated, and the momentum has been dictated largely by the opposition . . .

Since the elections Malaysians have shown that they can cope with rapid change but the recent events have come as a shock. The word “bewildered” litters the Malaysian blogosphere. Conspiracy theories swirl but government ministers have denied any link with the accuser. He himself is in hiding. His family deny he has the backing of the government. Mr Anwar and his supporters, however, have produced pictures of him with various people linked to the government, including an aide to Najib Razak, Mr Badawi’s deputy and heir-apparent . . . In 1998 Mr Anwar’s accusers failed to make the charges stick in the court of public opinion. That stands him in good stead as Malaysia hunkers down for an extended, unwanted, repeat performance.

From The Wall Street Journal, which also always keeps its eye on the capital prize:

The decades-long supremacy of the National Front coalition, dominated by the United Malays National Organization, received its greatest challenge in March when it suffered a drubbing in a national election. It still garnered just enough seats in the lower house of Parliament to stay in power, but it raised the prospect that Malaysia would become a model of peaceful democratic change in the Islamic world, and that the National Front could be ousted after ruling since Malaysian independence in 1957.

The country also has been racked by religious and ethnic tensions as it continues to pursue an economic policy that favors ethnic Malays. In November, ethnic Indians engaged in unprecedented protests over alleged discrimination, prompting a government clampdown. Accelerating inflation and rising fuel prices has added to the discontent among the nation’s citizens.

Mr. Anwar’s People’s Justice Party, or Parti Keadilan Rakyat, won 82 seats along with a group of allies in the 222-seat lower house of Parliament in the March 8 vote. The alliance needs 30 more seats to replace the National Front coalition, and the charismatic Mr. Anwar has been trying to attract defectors from the ruling coalition in hopes of forcing a change in government. It would be unprecedented in Malaysian history for the opposition to take power through the parliamentary process.

Anwar himself explains why the government is again attempting to arrest his political momentum with a charge of sodomy: “[T]hey think this is the best [way] to cause anxiety and disgust among Muslims.”

Which raises the same sort of question as Alexa asked here, in relation to the now-infamous New Yorker cover. In her diary, the question was: “is there something wrong with being Muslim?” Here, the question is: “is there something wrong with sodomy?”

Well, in this country, until 2003 sodomy, at least among persons of the same sex (as is the allegation over there in Malaysia), was in this country considered so wrong it was against the law. As has been noted of late over on our orange blog, we in this country may very soon be given an opportunity, in our own contest for chief executive, to decide just how wrong we consider same-sex sodomy. This is because John McCain is apparently considering as his running mate a man who is a same-sex-sodomy devotee. Though the vote will of course not be a truly free and open one, as this man has hastily taken a wife, in an effort to hide his love, a love that he feels still dare not speak its name.

The Bush administration has now expressed “serious concern” over Anwar’s arrest. But as no one even in the United States listens to Bush anymore, his “concern” is unlikely to have any effect in Malaysia. Indeed, Malaysia had previously sent a note of protest complaining about US meddling in Malaysian affairs.

What will probably have more effect is this carefully worded “open letter” from a number of prominent Muslims, drawn from a galaxy of Muslim nations.

It reads, in part:

We are deeply concerned about the physical safety and freedom of our respected brother Datuk Seri Dr. Anwar Ibrahim. We are troubled by the unsubstantiated and clearly scurrilous claims made against him and his character . . .

Our beloved Malaysia is today one of the leading countries of the Muslim Ummah. It is an example of a successful modern Islamic country, and in many ways a model and example for other Muslim countries . . . Indeed, perhaps precisely because of Malaysia’s prominence within the Ummah and the world, we would like to point out that the global Muslim community is paying close attention to the way our respected and honorable brother Dr. Anwar Ibrahim is treated. We have no wish to interfere in the internal politics of Malaysia, or in civil and criminal accusations within the country, which we reiterate are ultimately the business only of the Malaysian state and people. However, the spectacle, ten years ago, of our respected brother Datuk Seri Dr. Anwar Ibrahim sitting patiently in court after having been personally and illegally beaten up by then Police Chief of Malaysia is still fresh within our minds as a travesty of justice and impartiality under the law in a leading Muslim country. We are all still ashamed of that image, which will ever be indelibly engraved in our memories . . .

Thus we feel that we have a right–and indeed, an obligation under Islam–to strongly urge the Malaysian authorities to facilitate a swift, transparent and just resolution to this issue and resolutely ensure the safety, freedom and physical well-being of our honorable and respected brother Anwar Ibrahim . . .

Finally, we are morally obliged as Muslims to also point out that our religion and our beloved Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) regard false accusations in these matters to be of extremely grave consequence. In fact, under Islamic Law, accusations of this magnitude that are not substantiated by four eye-witnesses of impeccable character (such as did not occur neither with these accusations nor with the previous ones) incur severe legal punishment only for the accusers themselves . . .

However, we have complete trust in Allah and so remain hopeful that the highest political authorities in Malaysia will, in sha Allah, secure an honest and just outcome to this deeply troubling situation.

Meanwhile, I’m kinda concerned about this Raja Petra Kamaruddin blogger. Anwar, he has folks like the US government and a group of Islamic scholars looking out for him. Not so Raja Petra.

Here is the guy’s wiki entry. Says he’s a distant relation of the Malay royal family. Might seem like enough protection; still, you never know. Here is his blogger profile. Seems an impassioned, feisty guy: one of us. I liked what I found on his site–until it stopped appearing on my computer. Now I am happy to say that his site appears to be back up. Still, I think we should keep our eye on him. Judging both from news on the tubes and his wiki entry, he seems to be spending a lot of time of late in police stations. When Raja Petra goes into police custody on this latest warrant—hell, any time he goes into police custody—I want to make sure he comes back out. If he wasn’t so eternally busy trying to make his own country safe for something like democracy, I’m sure he’d do the same for us.

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