In the past two years, Malaysia, which has been a one-party state since it gained independence in 1957, has made remarkable strides toward becoming a democracy. That it has done so is mostly due to the efforts and political talent of one man – Anwar Ibrahim.
So the fact that Anwar went on criminal trial last week should deeply concern the democratic world. The outcome could determine whether one of Asia’s most economically successful countries preserves its stability and embraces long-overdue reforms.
A former deputy prime minister in the ruling party, Anwar was deposed and jailed in 1998 by former Malaysian strongman Mahathir Mohamad.
A manifestly unfair trial followed in which Anwar was convicted of homosexual sodomy, which shamefully remains a crime in Malaysia.
Six years later, the conviction was overturned by a court, and Anwar resumed his political career – this time as an open champion of democracy in Malaysia and other Muslim countries.
Anwar succeeded in forging a coalition of opposition parties, including his own multiracial People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat or PKR), an Islamic party (PAS), and a secular party (DAP).
He has campaigned against the government’s toxic policy of racial discrimination, which funnels economic favours to well-connected members of the ethnic Malay majority.
In the past two years, his coalition has pulled off a string of stunning victories in state and parliamentary by-elections; it now controls four of 13 state governments. If led by Anwar, it would have a fair chance of winning the next national election in 2013.
That’s one reason it’s suspicious that, three months after the state election victories in 2008, Anwar was once again accused of sodomy.
Another is that his young male accuser was seen with aides of Najib Razak, who is now prime minister; Anwar says he has evidence that the accuser met with the prime minister and his wife shortly before making his charge.
A third is that the case has been transferred from criminal court to a higher court whose judges are closely linked to the ruling party.
If Anwar is convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and would be banned from politics for five years. He is 62.
The ruling party no doubt hopes a conviction will cause the opposition coalition to crumble. But it could just as easily provoke a backlash against Najib or street demonstrations that could destabilise the country.
That’s why the Obama administration and other Western governments interested in stability in Asia should make clear that the imprisonment of Anwar would be a blatant human rights violation – and not in Malaysia’s interest.