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Wednesday, April 14, 1999 Published at 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK

Analysis: Malaysia will never be the same

Mr Anwar's jail sentence sparked street protests

By Kieran Cooke

The trial and sentencing of former Malaysian deputy Prime Minister on corruption charges has galvanised political opposition in Malaysia, splitting the majority Malay community like never before.

Among the demonstrators protesting on the streets of Kuala Lumpur against the sentencing, the majority are ethnic Malays: the community that Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister, would traditionally look to for support.

The prime minister must be alarmed at the scale and strength of the continuing demonstrations over his handling of the Anwar case. His government has taken a number of tough measures in order to control the protest movement, but to little effect.

Supporters of Mr Anwar, both in Malaysia and overseas, have communicated through the World Wide Web. They have been encouraged by support shown around the world, particularly from regional leaders.

Opposition across the spectrum

But it is just not members of the intelligentsia who have come out against Dr Mahathir: some of the strongest antipathy to the government is in the more Muslim, conservative and rural parts of the country.

These people are not necessarily political supporters of Mr Anwar; rather they view his trial and sentence as a catalyst for focusing their growing frustration and resentment at what they see as corruption and nepotism in government.

These people, the farmers and the workers on factory assembly lines, feel they have not benefited from Malaysia's economic growth. They see senior politicians, in league with businessmen, making enormous profits on land deals.

Growing discontent

This growing discontent within the Malay community has profound implications for Malaysia's political future. The United Malays National Organisation or UMNO, headed by Dr Mahathir, has run Malaysia ever since independence in 1957.

While UMNO has in the past experienced periodic political upheavals, the party's internal arguments have been kept off the streets. Now all that could change.

Dr Mahathir, Asia's longest-serving leader, has always shown himself a master of political wheeler dealing. But he has had recurring bouts of ill health - many say he is losing his grip.

Old guard

[ image: Anwar Ibrahim: Was a liberal voice in government]
Anwar Ibrahim: Was a liberal voice in government
Like Indonesia's former president Suharto, the Malaysian leader is seen very much as part of the old guard. Yet not so long ago, Dr Mahathir and Mr Anwar appeared to be involved in one of Asia's most successful political double acts.

Dr Mahathir was the tough, no-nonsense leader, seen as responsible for turning Malaysia into one of the world's economic success stories. Mr Anwar, meanwhile, was the Muslim intellectual, a liberal who was able to hold out the promise of a more open society, and practised at courting all-important foreign investors.

It is easy to see Mr Anwar's fall from power in strictly political terms. Dr Mahathir's young protege became too much of a threat.

Anwar opposed cronyism

But government opponents say there were other reasons for the move against Mr Anwar. As finance minister, Mr Anwar had strongly opposed Dr Mahathir's increasingly virulent attacks against western financiers in the wake of the Asian economic crisis.

He opposed the imposition of capital controls and, most crucially, he had gone against bailing out of financial difficulties various politically-well-connected companies, including one run by a son of Dr Mahathir.

But Dr Mahathir, and his still considerable body of supporters, reject all these allegations. They say the court has decided the charges against Mr Anwar were true. The country, they say, must now settle down and continue the important business of rebuilding its economy.

But with the demonstrations continuing, there is little sign Malaysia is willing to let the Anwar issue simply fade away. Malaysian politics is unlikely ever to be the same again.

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