Even Prosperity May Not Help an Asian Autocrat

Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir detains former protg, Anwar Ibrahim. Thousands take to streets.

As Ana Sirah watches police shoot water cannons and tear gas into groups of peaceful protesters, her eyes sharpen with anger and frustration. Her demure Muslim head scarf and flowery outfit belie some newfound and fiercely held political convictions.

This self-employed businesswoman says Malaysia's political turmoil will worsen if the authorities insist on repression. "We are waking up now," she says of her thirtysomething generation of well-educated professionals.

Suddenly the man responsible for Malaysia's prosperity, Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, has become the object of Ms. Ana's scorn. "This is the beginning of his downfall," she asserts. "He will have to resign."

Impartial analysts disagree, partly because most Malaysians do not seem to be in a revolutionary mood and partly because their government is well-equipped to silence those who are.

Some Malaysians are indeed waking up, but they also are finding that something that should be theirs is missing. "We have allowed an erosion of our basic constitutional values and now we are realizing our loss," says Param Cumaraswamy, a lawyer in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, who is also the United Nations' special rapporteur on judicial independence.

Malaysians, like many other people in the once-booming economies of East Asia, tolerated limitations of their political and civil rights in exchange for a government that produced positive economic results. But now that they want to raise their voices in opposition to some recent actions by Mr. Mahathir, they are finding themselves hobbled and stifled.

The best example is Anwar Ibrahim, who was Mahathir's deputy prime minister and anointed successor until early this month. Alleging his protg had "moral" problems, Mahathir fired him from the government and had him dumped from the dominant ruling party.

Political analysts say Mahathir may have felt politically threatened by Anwar, a tension exacerbated by disputes over how to respond to the economic crisis. During a June party convention, some Anwar allies also indirectly accused Mahathir of "corruption, collusion, and nepotism," the battle cry of those who toppled Indonesia's former President Suharto after 32 years in power.

Labeling a dictator

Since his Sept. 2 dismissal, Anwar has mounted an impromptu "reformation" movement by ignoring laws banning unauthorized political rallies and labeling Mahathir a "dictator." The movement has drawn a surprising amount of support - including a rally of some 35,000 in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday - from Malaysians who believe that Anwar has been politically assassinated by a leader unwilling to accept a challenger.

After the rally, the authorities moved against Anwar again, arresting him under Malaysia's Internal Security Act (ISA), a cold-war-era law that allows police to hold people without an explanation, a charge, or a trial for 60 days. At that time, by a written order of the interior minister, the term of detention can be extended for up to two years.

Mahathir, in addition to being premier, is also the interior minister. In 1987, amid another tussle with a different deputy prime minister, Mahathir used the ISA to imprison 106 people, many for nearly the full two years.

"If Mahathir feels more beleaguered," says a foreign analyst interviewed on condition of anonymity, "then he's clearly going to crack down." At the same time, this observer believes the prime minister can weather any criticism that might follow. "I don't see this as the beginning of the fall of Mahathir," he says, arguing that the premier resolutely controls the country and that most Malaysians are too content to risk the upheaval that removing Mahathir would entail.

A loner

Mahathir has always been something of a loner - he has drawn attention for blaming his country's financial and economic troubles on foreign speculators, blaming Jews in particular - so it seems unlikely that international criticism will trouble him. Having ruled since 1981 and engineered Malaysia's remarkable transition from being a collection of tin and rubber plantations to a leading producer of semiconductors and other high-tech goods, he is nothing if not confident of his own abilities.

But beginning with the fall of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, Asia has witnessed a succession of authoritarian governments give way to more democratic ones. While some experts have noted that the discrediting of the free market may also hurt the march toward democracy, Mahathir may find that Malaysians will not put up with his current tactics.

"He gave the country development and wealth," said one man watching one of yesterday's protests. "That doesn't give him the right to repress the people."

In recent days police have arrested several of Anwar's associates and yesterday, in a part of Kuala Lumpur called Freedom Square, the authorities showed that they are no longer willing to overlook political gatherings. Because Anwar was expected to appear for an arraignment, thousands of his supporters had gathered around a courthouse near the square.

First, riot police kept the sometimes noisy crowds at bay with tear gas, water cannons, and with short charges. Then, groups of tough-looking plainclothes police, wearing motorcycle helmets and with pistols in their belts, picked out individuals from the sullen crowds of demonstrators and chased them down.

They dragged the demonstrators they caught onto buses, presumably for arrest, but police would not say yesterday afternoon how many had been seized.

One attorney, who had to duck behind a pillar to avoid being hit by a water cannon as he emerged from the courthouse at lunchtime, said he had never witnessed such a scene. "I'm ashamed to be a lawyer," he said.

As it turned out, the demonstrators waited in vain, since Anwar's detention under the ISA required no arraignment. Anwar's wife and likely political successor said yesterday evening she had received no communication from her husband since police seized him Sunday night.

Mr. Param, in addition to his concerns over the use of the ISA and the limitations on public protest, sees other erosions in Malaysia's civil liberties. For one thing, he says, the government, through a law that requires publishers to reapply for licenses every year, effectively controls the media. Lately, Param says the judiciary has also been increasingly constrained.

Visitors to Malaysia quickly pick up on what Param calls a "climate of fear." Lawyers, economists, and diplomats refuse to discuss anything of any substance over the telephone and people in the street encourage foreign reporters to "write the truth."

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