Not so foreign scandal

January 29, 1999|By Daniel Berger

IF YOUR political foe has dangerous views and more dangerous popularity, get him for sexual deviancy. It's been done.

Mahathir Mohamad, 73, has for 18 years been prime minister and boss of Malaysia, which is a federal parliamentary democracy with an autocratic atmosphere. Anwar Ibrahim, 51, was his protege, finance minister, deputy prime minister and heir apparent.

In the economic meltdown of 1997 and '98, based on reckless bank loans to a commercial real estate bubble that Mr. Mahathir created, the prime minister took strong action. He kept the banks going, demanded they lend more to build Malaysia out of its recession and kept the currency, the ringgit, off world markets.

Mr. Anwar objected. He said Malaysia should adopt reforms the West wants, let foreign businesses enter the financial services industry, regulate banks and let the currency float.

Mr. Mahathir sacked Mr. Anwar. Mr. Anwar went into opposition mode, speaking to multitudes, promising to found a political party to contest elections.

Then, in September, Mr. Anwar was arrested and jailed as a dangerous sexual predator of men and women. Two men pleaded guilty to having been sodomized by him and were imprisoned.

Mr. Anwar was arraigned with a black eye he said the police gave him. Mr. Mahathir suggested it had been self-administered.

Trial on five charges of sodomy and five of corruption -- abusing power to obstruct the sodomy investigation -- began the first week of November.

He is accused of urging police to force a man and a woman to retract their allegations of sexual misconduct. He said he had merely suggested they do it without coercion because the accusations had been false.

The accusing chief of detectives testified to Mr. Anwar's crimes but also conceded that he, himself, would lie if ordered.

Judge Augustine Paul ordered the defendant to stop trying to claim that political enemies were smearing him and to concentrate on the corruption charge. The judge jailed Mr. Anwar's attorney for contempt, provoking a demonstration by 200 lawyers on top of the simmering public unrest and Islamic revival.

The two convicted victims of Mr. Anwar's crimes recanted, claiming to have been coerced by police, and were freed on appeal.

The case turned on DNA and chemical analysis of a mattress. The more detail that came out, the more popular Mr. Anwar became. His family stood by him.

In the 10th week of the trial, the second week of January, the prosecution dropped the sodomy charges. The remaining trial is not about sex but about abuse of power in beating the sex rap. The judge threw out Mr. Anwar's evidence of innocence of sodomy and adultery as irrelevant.

The police chief resigned over Mr. Anwar's blackened eye. Mr. Mahathir reluctantly agreed to further investigation of the matter.

For such a depraved man, Mr. Anwar has a remarkable set of friends and admirers (notice, I do not say strange bedfellows).

They include the common people, the Islamic clergy (Mr. Anwar is an Islamicizing politician by Malaysian standards), the international financial community (Mr. Anwar advocates what the International Monetary Fund and U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin want), Vice President Al Gore and Asian political leaders. Neat trick. Only a truly dangerous politician could manage all that.

Although Mr. Mahathir's term lasts until April 2000, there are hints of an earlier election to restore legitimacy. It is not clear where Mr. Anwar would fit in. The general appearance of the episode is that Mr. Mahathir meant to crack down like a dictator but did not know how this is done. Malaysia's democratic and legal institutions have been sturdier than critics supposed.

Tomorrow, Judge Augustine has promised that he will decide whether to dismiss four corruption charges or prolong the trial.

I am making none of this up.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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