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Malaysia's Bridge is Falling Down

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By Thor Halvorssen and Alex Gladstein

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- The farcical trial of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim resumes this week in Kuala Lumpur. This is the second time that the country's ruling establishment has tried to destroy Anwar's career with trumped-up allegations of sodomy. It succeeded 12 years ago, when he was imprisoned for six years on similar charges. Now Anwar faces up to 20 years in jail and whipping if convicted.

Controlled by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) since independence and now led by the increasingly autocratic Prime Minister Najib Razak, the Malaysian government knows Anwar is the only viable threat to its half-century of rule. Anwar became a risk to the government as deputy prime minister in 1998 when he began attacking corruption and calling for reform. Ultimately he became leader of the opposition. Najib's UMNO is trying to jail Anwar again in hopes of crushing his People's Justice Party (PKR). A secular Muslim party, PKR leads a diverse political coalition with ethnic Chinese and Islamist partners. If Anwar is neutralized, this opposition movement would be paralyzed. Anwar's accuser - a former intern- admits to meeting with Najib just days before the alleged sexual act occurred and he has since changed his story several times. The charges against Anwar are transparently political. But the obvious intent of the trial matters little in Malaysia, where the government exercises a disabling grip on the justice system and the media. Yet as one visits Kuala Lumpur today, these autocratic tendencies are not immediately visible. The modern splendor of this city and the surrounding wealthy state of Selangor help disguise one of the world's most insidious authoritarian governments. Najib's most powerful tool is the Internal Security Act - a remnant from the days of British colonialism that gives the Interior Minister power to indefinitely and arbitrarily imprison any Malaysian without trial or even evidence. Through the ISA the government creates a climate of fear by arresting dozens of politicians, journalists, and student leaders. Opposition voices like Anwar who are politically attacked through the courts are hardly better off than victims of the ISA. Virtually all positions in the justice system beyond the local level are held by government cronies. Most problematic is that the local media cannot report on the ISA and the puppet justice system. The Printing Presses and Publications Act gives Najib near-absolute control over the news as media organizations need the government's permission to operate. Almost all major national newspapers, magazines, television channels, and radio stations here are tied to the ruling UMNO party. And Najib continues to tighten his grip in the face of Anwar's trial. Suara Keadilan, the publication of Anwar's PKR party, and the two other visible opposition outlets had their permits revoked on July 1. The only way to get unfiltered news in Malaysia is online. Here, the media is protected by the "Bill of Guarantee of No Internet Censorship" - a law passed in the 1990s, at the strong suggestion of Bill Gates, to woo IT development to Malaysia. Unfortunately, internet penetration is extremely limited outside of Malaysian urban centers. In some provinces, less than 10% of the population has online access, and most are stuck with the broadsheets. These read as if from a 1984 dystopia - there is no bad news, and other than culture and sports, there is cant-laden drivel about the government's righteous quest to "serve the people". On a visit to the offices of a small opposition monthly, the editors despaired at the suffocating Malaysian media culture. Not just because it means Malaysians can't easily find truth, but also because the next generation has grown uninterested: real journalism can no longer be practiced. Through the silencing of opposition voices, vote-shopping, and gerrymandering, the UMNO-led government is able to continue its autocratic rule while calling Malaysia a democracy. And Najib seeks to perpetuate this charade by clamping down on Malaysian youth. Through the University and University College Act, students are forbidden from having any involvement in politics. Despite their systemic nature, Malaysia's human rights violations are largely unknown to the outside world. Many academics and journalists group the country with Indonesia and Turkey as a promising moderate Muslim democracy. And Wikipedia's entries on Malaysia and on Najib avoid any mention of human rights, the Internal Security Act, censorship, or the crumbling rule of law. Such whitewashing is not surprising given that Najib hired Washington-based APCO Worldwide to burnish his image and besmirch Anwar's. Anwar, who has been profiled in TIME, the New Yorker, and Newsweek, and is frequently lionized as a promising Muslim leader, has recently been APCO's target. In Malaysia, Anwar has often been mocked for having "Jewish friends." Najib's mentor and predecessor, Mahathir, even went so far as to say Anwar "would make a good prime minister for Israel." In return, Anwar seized Najib's hiring of APCO as a chance to issue inflammatory remarks on the firm's supposed ties to Israel. This backfired when APCO distributed Anwar's comments internationally along with a series of unattributed anti-Semitic statements posted on his website. The result is that on the eve of his trial many of his Western allies have questioned Anwar's integrity. The truth is that Anwar has been critical of some policies of the current Israeli government. And in the last few months he has even become more vocal as he wrestles with Najib's media apparatus to avoid being pinned as blindly pro-Israel. But Anwar is hardly an anti-Semite. Contrast this with UMNO--which has led entire rallies inveighing against "the Jew." Anwar's critics should be careful not to carry water for Najib's party, which proudly sports venomous anti-Semitic rhetoric and conspiracy. Over dinner in Kuala Lumpur, Anwar told us that unless international actors address issues like censorship and imprisonment without trial, Malaysia will not become the oft-discussed bridge between East and West. Only if his trial is exposed as a sham and he avoids prison might Malaysia have a real democratic contest with elections in 2012 or 2013. Sadly, this country's appalling human rights record remains buried under a sea of APCO press releases.

Thor Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum. Alex Gladstein is its vice president of strategy.

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