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Reformasi! Reformasi!

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Seems like déjà vu all over again in Malaysia. The opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who was sentenced to jail in 2000 for sodomy (it’s a crime in Malaysia), once more faces similar charges. As before, Anwar, a former leader of the governing coalition who turned to the opposition, claims he’s been set up by the ruling party, which has dominated Malaysian politics (not to mention the police force and judiciary) since independence. He has a point. Several of the people who, in the previous case, had claimed to have had sex with him later recanted their confessions, and the DNA evidence seemed likely to have been fabricated. This time, an independent medical report has found that the man who claimed to have had sex with Anwar was never sodomised.

Not that the police have anything to fear. In another recent high-profile case, a journalist who had reported allegations of corruption supposedly fell to his death from a skyscraper while in custody. A forensic report by a Thai scientist not affiliated with the Malaysian government concluded that the man had been beaten severely before he ‘fell’.

Yet the ruling coalition this time will find it much harder to pin the charges on Anwar. The internet and other new media have broken the stranglehold of the state-dominated press. Last year, the opposition – an unwieldy group of ethnic Chinese, ethnic Malay liberals like Anwar and Malay Islamists – broke the ruling party’s symbolic control of more than two-thirds of Parliament. They’ve also won control of four state governments. The ruling party has fought back – states that go over to the opposition tend suddenly to lose their government-funded projects – but the opposition has managed to hang on. And the prime minister, Najib Tun Ruzak, though a savvy political operator, is a mere shadow of Mahathir Mohamad, the long-ruling autocrat who was in charge during Anwar’s first trial.

The new Anwar trial – set to begin on 25 January – could prove far more explosive than the last. Then, tens of thousands of Malaysians poured onto the main green, near the courthouse, to demonstrate against the government, chanting: ‘Reformasi! Reformasi!’ This time, with Anwar in a much stronger position politically, those earlier protests could come to seem like nothing.

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