Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dirty Tricks in Malaysia

Published in WSJ.com - Review & Outlook column A sex tape appears just in time to hobble the opposition again.



The latest installment in a long saga of smears against Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is afoot, even as his second trial for alleged sodomy drags on. Three anonymous men calling themselves the "datuk trio," now exposed and under police investigation, showed a group of hand-picked journalists a video purporting to depict the former deputy prime minister having sex with a female prostitute a month earlier. The three said their motivation was to "show the truth." But as with past attacks on Mr. Anwar, the timing is politically significant: Snap elections are expected later this year.


The way in which the tape became public is also suspicious. Many of the invited journalists proceeded to impugn Mr. Anwar without revealing the identity and motivations of the tape's owners. Nor did they determine whether the tape was doctored, or other details of its provenance. Mr. Anwar's denials that he is the man on the tape, and his defense that he was busy posting on the Internet on the night in question, have been given short shrift by the country's mainstream media outlets, many of which are owned by the government and the parties in the ruling coalition.


Dirty-tricks campaigns like poison-pen letters are depressingly common in Malaysia. But public skepticism about the ever-lengthening list of allegations against Mr. Anwar suggests they may no longer have the power they once did to ruin political careers.


Alternative sources of information are developing, and as Malaysians become better informed they are more independent-minded. If Mr. Anwar can convince Malaysians that he is not the man on the tape, this latest attack will only make him stronger, since it will bolster the belief at home and abroad that he is the victim of politically motivated persecution.


That would spell bad news for the ruling United Malays National Organization, which says it has nothing to do with the sex tape. Its support has been slipping away in the Malay heartland, leaving the ruling coalition vulnerable. In the March 2008 general elections, the opposition substantially increased its seats and polled 46.8% of the popular vote.


Mr. Anwar then came close to toppling the government by enticing MPs to defect from the government benches. Prime Minister Najib Razak has since managed to rally government forces, but this could be a temporary reprieve. UMNO is vulnerable to complaints that corruption scandals such as that over the funding of Port Klang are occurring on its watch. The transfer of power might have happened much sooner but for Mr. Anwar's conviction for sodomy in 1998. He served six years in prison before the Supreme Court reversed a verdict that had become a stain on the country's body politic—the defendant was beaten in custody by the inspector general of police, evidence was inconsistent and witnesses were found to have been coerced.


So it's understandable that many Malaysians regarded the latest case with skepticism—especially given irregularities in the investigation, such as the lack of medical evidence and delay in collecting DNA evidence. Mr. Anwar has maintained his innocence, but the pressure has taken its toll. While even the Islamist PKS party dismissed the latest sodomy allegations and affirmed Mr. Anwar's leadership at first, the opposition coalition has been fracturing and losing by-elections in recent months. Many Malaysians have had enough of dirty tricks.


But Mr. Anwar still faces an uphill struggle to convince a majority that despite all the smears he is a worthy leader.

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