Riots, sodomy and the backlash

So, now we have a date. Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s opposition leader, will take to the stand on 8 August in defence at his own trial for sodomy.

That’s right, sodomy. Anwar is, according to the government, the epitome of evil, in that he is gay.

(Terrible! How can a country like Malaysia, which is majority Muslim, still criminalise homosexuality? How backward! Actually, the British introduced the legal framework outlawing sodomy in the 1870s during its colonisation of Malaya and it has never been repealed. In fact, England and Wales only legalised gay sex in 1967, a decade after Malaysia’s independence (you had to wait until 1992 if you lived in the Isle of Man). The laws we introduced in our former colonies allow for jail sentences for up to 20 years for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” Very progressive, imperial Britain.)

Anyway, the question is not why do the British elite have such a complicated relationship with homosexuality, but why is Anwar once again being prosecuted for sodomy? He was first convicted of bottom-related shenanigans in 1999 and served six years in prison before the conviction was overturned (he finished off a few months of a separate corruption conviction and was released in 2004).

Anwar demonstrates his extracurricular tendencies during his first trial.* It turned out to be a poor defence. *This isn't true, lawyerly people.

The timing of that conviction was most fortutuitous for the government. Anwar had been deputy prime minister before he had a falling out in 1998 with then-prime minister and all-round Malaysian father figure Mahathir Mohamed. Anwar launched a protest movement, reformasi, aimed at ousting Mahathir. Then he was banged up and reformasi died.

After his release, he again vowed to lead a political opposition reform movement, and was elected to parliament in a by-election after his wife stood down (we say wife, but as he was convicted for sodomy, we’re sure the Malaysian government considers her just a beard). Lo and behold, just before the by-election, Anwar was arrested again for sodomy, this time allegedly with one of his aides. Sounds a little fishy, no?

Now, Anwar’s trial is picking up pace just as the political temperature is heating up again. The next general election will likely be held in 2012. At the last one the government (which has been in power in various forms since independence) didn’t perform as well as it would have liked: it lost its two-thirds supermajority required to amend the constitution. In fact, 2008 was the worst performance for the UMNO-dominated coalitions that have formed the government since the first first election in 1959.

Crikey, Anwar, just drop it, all right?

And with this all happening, the population is getting what the British imperials used to call ‘uppity’. A rally on Saturday, led by the loose Bersih coalition (Bersih means ‘clean’ in Malay and their demands relate to electoral reform), drew up to 20,000 supporters and led to fierce clashes with police. Before the rally, 150 people were arrested; during, 1,667 people.

The social contract between the government and the population is essentially breaking down. Following intense race riots in Malaysia in 1969 between the economically dominant ethnic Chinese and the demographically dominant ethnic Malays, the government instituted a series of policies to prioritise ethnic Malay economic development. In return, the Chinese (and Indian) citizens received stability with which to capitalise on Malaysia’s rapid economic growth. The population was willing to accept limits on their political freedoms in return for this stability, seen as necessary for the nascent country, suffering from racial divides, recovering from the Malayan Emergency counterinsurgency campaign and konfrontasi with Indonesia and wary of the Thai communist insurgency occasionally crossing the border.

Who thinks this ends well?

Now, that trade is no longer seen as either necessary or desirable. With the figurehead of Mahathir long gone and the current prime minister alleged to have received kickbacks from an arms deal with the French (as well as the peculiar case of his bodyguards having disposed of the body of a Mongolian translator), there is a distinct malaise with the ruling elite. The burgeoning middle class is bridling at the political restrictions in place, as it no longer need worry too much about prosperity.

There has also been a greater polarisation in the political spectrum. The rise of PAS, an Islamist party, in the 2000s is indicative of a reclamation of religion for many Malays, a trend that is worrying to the Chinese and Indians that comprise approximately a third of Malaysia’s population. (Side note: a large proportion of the Chinese and Indians were brought to Malaysia by the British to work in plantations and build railways; so, we bequeathed them discriminatory legislation and racial tensions. Go UK!).

The government, though, won’t go quietly. Arrests, showtrials and media campaigns are likely to characterise their campaign to hold on to power. There may well be a lot more teargas on the streets of Kuala Lumpur before this is resolved.

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