Sunday, September 14, 2008

Crisis looms in Malaysia

Crisis looms in Malaysia
15 Sept, 2008

The Wall Street Journal Asia.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose government made several controversial arrests of critics and a journalist on Friday, faces mounting pressure from an opposition alliance and increasing dissent within his own political party that could presage an internal challenge to his leadership.

A three-party opposition alliance led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has pledged to topple 68 year-old Abdullah by luring enough government MPs to its ranks to win a no-confidence vote against the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which has been in power since Malaysia's independence in 1957.

The opposition is expected to miss its initial target date of Sept 16 to vote out Abdullah's government. But Anwar said yesterday that his alliance already "has the numbers" to defeat the BN. "My personal target is within September," he said in a telephone interview.

At the same time, Abdullah has to deal with increasing opposition within his own party, Umno. International Trade Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, an Umno vice-president, last week publicly questioned Abdullah's plan to stay in office until mid-2010 before handing leadership to Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak, hinting that he should step down sooner.

Muhyiddin also said that 83-year-old former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a fierce critic of Abdullah, is prepared to rejoin Umno after resigning in May. Some political analysts speculate that the developments signal a move by party dissidents to push Abdullah from power at Umno's annual meeting in December, if not before.

"Abdullah's options are fast decreasing," said political commentator Karim Raslan.

The squeeze on Abdullah came as political tension escalated during the weekend over a crackdown aimed at government critics. On Friday, the government used Malaysia's tough Internal Security Act, which permits detention without charges for up to two years, to arrest a well-known anti-government blogger, Raja Petra Kamarudin, and a popular opposition MP, Teresa Kok.

Persons held under the ISA have limited access to legal counsel, but major opposition figures allied with Anwar, including influential Muslim politician Datuk Abdul Hadi Awang, challenged the detention of Kok, who was accused of complaining about noise from a mosque in her constituency. One opposition leader called the allegation "ludicrous-.

Also detained under the ISA was Tan Hoon Cheng, a journalist who first reported remarks by Umno politician Datuk Ahmad Ismail aimed at Malaysia's minority ethnic Chinese population. The remarks, deemed racist, caused a national uproar in this multiethnic, multireligion country and forced the party to suspend Ahmad for three years.Tan was released on Saturday; Home Affairs Minister Datuk Syed Hamid Albar contended that she had been detained to ensure her "safety" after threats had made been against her.

The government also moved against Malaysia's press, threatening to close three news media outlets, including Tan's influential Chinese-language newspaper, Sin Chew Daily, for allegedly stirring unrest by reporting on "sensitive" issues such as race relations in Malaysia, where politically dominant ethnic Malay Muslims make up about 60 per cent of the population.

On Saturday, Syed Hamid defended the actions, saying they were necessary to preempt racial conflict. He also denied the crackdown was intended to hamper Anwar's bid for power.

But the measures prompted widespread criticism against Abdullah's government. The National Union of Journalists, the Bar Council, opposition parties and several members of the prime minister's own BN coalition all condemned the ISA arrests. Yesterday, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, a lawyer and the government's minister in charge of legal affairs, threatened to quit Abdullah's Cabinet to protest the ISA arrests, online newspaper Malaysiakini reported.

"This kind of selective persecution is not acceptable to the public," said political analyst Khoo Kay Peng, pointing to the backlash against the arrests.

In a statement on the ISA detentions, the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur said: "We expect that democratic countries that advocate free expression of political views will not curtail such freedoms."

Opposition leader Anwar, 61, accused the government of using "brute force" to intimidate critics and stifle dissent. In an interview yesterday, he said the arrests were "a desperate act" to deflect attention from "internal strife within Umno" and reflected "anxiety" over the opposition's challenge. The government's intent was to "create a climate of fear and instability" in the country to justify more authoritarian measures, he said.

Anwar said opposition leaders will seek a meeting with Abdullah to protest the ISA detentions and to discuss what he called a "peaceful transition" to a new government led by the Pakatan Rakyat, as the opposition alliance is known. Abdullah hasn't responded to that initiative so far.

The opposition alliance has been gathering strength since it scored unprecedented gains in a parliamentary election in March. The grouping, comprising Anwar's PKR, the ethnic Chinese-based DAP and the religion-oriented ethnic Malay Pas, is trying to recruit at least 30 BN MPs to defect to their side.

That would allow the opposition to vote Abdullah's government out of office and, presumably, install Anwar to head a new government.

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