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Anwar Ibrahim at Kapar

Anwar Ibrahim was supposed to be in jail right now. The leader of Malaysia’s opposition would be convicted of having sex with a male aide, everyone here expected, and jailed long enough to ensure he posed no threat in the country’s coming elections. But after his surprise acquittal earlier this month, Mr. Anwar suddenly has a very different residence in mind. “The next time we meet,” he says conspiratorially as we sit in his party’s headquarters on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur for his first interview with a Western newspaper since the verdict, “it will be in a different office.” A smile spreads above his greying goatee as he points up and beyond me. He means Putrajaya, the suburb of Kuala Lumpur that’s home to the office of the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

Southeast Asia begins 2012 as a region in upheaval. Myanmar’s generals have begun unexpectedly tearing down their authoritarian system, and neighbouring Thailand’s coup-prone army stood aside last year and let the opposition it had previously confronted in the streets take power via the ballot box. Mr. Anwar is convinced that Malaysia, a nominally democratic nation that has been dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) since the country gained independence from Britain in 1957, will be the next to see sweeping change. “There’s definitely a Southeast Asian Spring taking place. No question about it. … We are between the ancien régime and the rebellion of the masses,” says the man sometimes portrayed as the Nelson Mandela of this Muslim majority state. Mr. Anwar says the opposition would win a fairly held vote – and he warns that Malaysia could see scenes like those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square if it is somehow prevented from taking power.

Tens of thousands of Malaysians have already shown their willingness to demonstrate, marching through the streets of Kuala Lumpur last July to call for reforms to the country’s electoral system, which is seen as having been gerrymandered in the ruling party’s favour. “We want free and fair elections,” Mr. Anwar says. And if not? “Then we will fight. The people will not take it. No civilized country would accept the rape of the nation.” Having managed to maintain and build support through 14 years of sodomy charges and other smears – no small feat in a conservative country that bleeps out words like “bang” from reruns of How I Met Your Mother – there’s suddenly a sense in Malaysia that Mr. Anwar might just end up in Putrajaya before the year is out.

Another jail term would likely have brought an end to the political career of the 64-year-old, who was deputy prime minister and UMNO’s heir apparent until he fell out with the autocratic Mahathir Mohammed in 1998 over the handling of that year’s Asian financial crisis. The relationship between the two men, long described as being similar to father and son, quickly dissolved into acrimony, mud-slinging and violence. Mr. Mahathir called for police to investigate allegations that Mr. Anwar was corrupt and gay. Mr. Anwar was duly arrested, beaten by police and sentenced to 14 years in prison, although that sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004. (Sodomy is illegal in Malaysia, though the colonial-era statute seems to be used almost exclusively against Mr. Anwar, a married father of six. Charges against Mr. Anwar – who has denied that he’s gay – and his associates account for four of seven recent uses of the law.)

The latest sodomy charges initially seemed to follow the old script, forcing Mr. Anwar to spend more time defending his reputation than building opposition to the government. The repeated allegations are scoffed at by many in cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur but likely have damaged Mr. Anwar’s popularity in more conservative rural areas. In a sign of how dimly gay rights are viewed in Malaysia, Mr. Anwar came under fire this week by the government-controlled press after he called the sodomy law “archaic.” He was forced to repeat a previous statement that he does “not promote homosexuality in public sphere and domain.” Since his acquittal, friends and allies say Mr. Anwar – always a workaholic – is more seized than ever with his Mandela-inspired vision of opening his country’s political system and ending the institutionalized political bias toward ethnic Malays (who are favoured for civil service and military posts ahead of the country’s Chinese and Indian minorities). He crams in as many meetings and campaign rallies as the day can fit, to the point where Some wonder whether his wiry frame, already besieged by arthritis and back pains caused by a 1998 police beating that was followed by six years in jail, is up to the task.

“I can say for a fact – because I’ve seen his medical records – that he suffers from facet joint arthritis, and [his] left sciatic nerve is damaged. He’s limited in his movements. The whole thing was exacerbated by the beatings, but it’s age as well,” said Sankara Nair, a lawyer who represented Mr. Anwar in the 1998 and 2011 trials known here as Sodomy I and Sodomy II. But Mr. Nair says his friend and client will only be slowed, not stopped, by his ailments. “I think Anwar is being looked upon as the saviour of the opposition, the salvation of the country. Is he up to it? Yes he is. … He’s even prepared for further allegations, but it’s full speed ahead to the elections. There’s no stopping this man.” The personal attacks – and the allegations of marital infidelity and homosexuality – have also taken their toll, especially on Mr. Anwar’s family. “It hasn’t been easy. It’s been a long journey, personally,” said his 31-year-old daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar.

But 14 years of watching her father battle persecution also transformed Ms. Nurul Izzah from a self-described “rather apathetic teenager” into a firebrand opposition MP, one who inherited her father’s flashing brown eyes and natural political skills. “This whole journey convinced me that this fight is not about Anwar,” she says. “It’s an attempt to move Malaysia forward.” (One of the main criticisms of Mr. Anwar is that he has turned his People’s Justice Party into something of a family dynasty, with his wife Wan Azizah serving as interim leader while he was in jail and his daughter now emerging as heir apparent.) Mr. Anwar heads an improbable coalition of Islamists, liberals and ethnic parties, an alliance that has already proven itself a threat to UMNO’s dominance, having won control of five of the country’s 13 state parliaments. It’s a coalition very much held together by his own chameleon-like character – the Islamists trust him because of his background as a leader of a Muslim student group, the liberals and middle class because of his successful tenure as the country’s finance minister, while ethnic groups look to his mixed Indian-Malay background and his long record as a defender of human rights.

Whether Malaysia really is changing as fast as the opposition believes arguably depends on why Mr. Anwar was acquitted on Jan. 9. Some believe Judge Mohamad Zabidin Diah – who throughout the trial had seemed openly biased toward the prosecution – was making a stand for judicial independence when he curtly delivered his not-guilty verdict. Others believe Judge Diah simply received new orders from the top as the lurid trial became an international embarrassment to the Malaysian government. The former version got a boost Friday when the prosecution announced it would appeal the not-guilty verdict, once more putting Mr. Anwar’s political future in a court’s hands. Behind that question of Judge Diah’s intentions is a wider debate about how serious Prime Minister Najib Razak is when he says he intends to transform Malaysia – a country that has lagged behind neighbouring Indonesia in embracing political change – into what he calls a “mature, progressive democracy.” The government has in recent months announced a series of major changes, trying to seize the mantle of reform as its own.

Last fall, Mr. Najib announced he would repeal the country’s hated Internal Security Act – a colonial-era law that allowed for “preventative detention” – and loosen restrictions on the country’s media, which is currently under tight government supervision. “I think that when Anwar tries to present himself as a reformer, he will find that ground is already occupied by the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak,” the government’s Information Minister, Rais Yatim, said in an interview. But government critics see only rhetoric so far. Mr. Najib plans to replace the ISA, which is currently still in place, with another act that will still allow preventative detention, albeit with more judicial oversight. The new law will also ban protest marches, a move seemingly targeted at giving police the power to crack down on any election-related protests. Few other promised reforms have materialized yet: with an election perhaps just months away, pro-government newspapers are still the only ones with permission to print, and promises to review election laws that currently favour the ruling party have gone unfilled. Mr. Anwar scoffs at the idea that Mr. Najib and UMNO are capable of substantive reform. “This government is not changing. It is the people who are going to change Malaysia.” By MARK MACKINNON From Saturday’s Globe and Mail


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