Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim speaks his mind

From Asia Times 8 August 2006
By Zari Bukhari and Shawn W Crispin

KUALA LUMPUR - Former Malaysian deputy prime minister and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim is on the political offensive. Nearly two years after his early release from six years in prison on trumped-up corruption and sodomy charges, he now represents the biggest opposition threat to Malaysia's government led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

Once groomed as former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's successor, Anwar, now 58, has spread his wings widely since his 2004 release, serving as an academic fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and later teaching courses on Arab politics, inter-religious relations and Islam and modernity at Georgetown University. On the international lecture circuit, including high-profile stops in Europe and the Middle East, he frequently speaks about the growing schism between Islam and the West.

Throughout, Anwar has presented himself as the cool, rational voice of moderate Islam, and his name is now frequently mentioned as a possible successor to outgoing United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. Although his candidacy has not been launched formally, Anwar is believed to have support in Europe and close ties with several seniorUS political figures, including World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz and former US trade representative and deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick.

In a recent e-mail interview with Asia Times Online contributor Zari Bukhari and Southeast Asia editor Shawn W Crispin, Anwar aired his views on Malaysian politics, his personal future and the escalating conflict in the Middle East.

ATol: How and why in your opinion would you represent a better political choice than the incumbent UMNO-led government? What would you handle differently and what specific political, economic and social policies would you enact toward that end?

Anwar: I believe that the opposition, particularly [Partai] Keadilan[Rakyat], would be able to offer a new brand of politics inMalaysia. There is a greater realization that the race-based politics of the ruling BN [Barisan Nasional] is obsolete, and is unable to face the present challenges. First, we are committed to democratic renewal - abolishing draconian laws such as the ISA [Internal Security Act], enhancing the role of parliament, restoring the independence of the judiciary and freeing up the media. Secondly, we are committed to a new economic agenda - one that takes a non-racial approach towards enhancing economic competitiveness and alleviating poverty for all Malaysians.

ATol: How do you reconcile your moderate Muslim image with your affiliation with the Islamic fundamentalist PAS [Parti Islam SeMalaysia, or Islamic Party of Malaysia]? Is this a marriage of political convenience, or does your affiliation indicate that you have returned to the more conservative Islamic views you held during your early political career?

Anwar: Yes, PAS is a political party based on Islamic ideals. Yet what many people fail to appreciate is that it has been operating faithfully within the democratic framework for over 50 years, in spite of undue pressures exerted to its participation by the BN government. There are things [on] which I do not agree with PAS, but in my engagement with them I am confident that we can work on a minimum set of programs that are in tandem with Keadilan's ideals.When I was arrested under the ISA for the first time, it was because I protested against the poverty and economic deprivation of the rural folk in Baling, Kedah. My commitment to Islam has always been consistent - as a source of an ethical framework for Malaysia, and one that promotes freedom, justice and human dignity.

ATol: What is your assessment of Abdullah Badawi's government? Has he lived up to his reform promise and, if not, what do you see as themore glaring discrepancies in his government's actions? What are your thoughts on the Mahathir versus Abdullah row? Do internal UMNOdisputes provide you with a valuable political opening? Any plans to politically exploit the widening row?

Anwar: Undoubtedly Abdullah's big victory in the 2004 elections was partly due to the fact that he campaigned on eradicating corruptionand enhancing accountability. While there have been some changes - eg, in the freer democratic space, less interference in the judiciary - I think overall Abdullah has failed to fulfill his pledge. There seems to be a lot of intent, but not so much political will in initiating change within UMNO. A lot of people have been disappointed, and Mahathir is exploiting on this. Personally, I view this clash as a personal dispute, as it seems ironic that Mahathir is talking about strong opposition, free pressand accountability when it was he who destroyed all that during hisrule. I believe that this has allowed the people to see our consistent commitment to reform more clearly, and hopefully they will give us the opportunity to implement it.

ATol: Looking back at your time in detention, what realizations did you come to while in prison about Malaysia's governance? As a former senior UMNO member, what do you view as the party's biggest historical shortcomings and future political soft spots?

Anwar: Even when I was back in UMNO, I was committed towards combating corruption and promoting freedom. But when in prison, it made merealize that I underestimated the force of the vested interests that are committed to derail reform.The problem with UMNO is that it has been in power for so long, and that it relies on racial politics as its strength. At times, this requires it to stir racial emotions for the sake of political expediency, but at the expense of the country.

ATol: Your name has recently been bandied about as a possible candidate to succeed Kofi Annan as United Nations secretary general. Any truth to those rumors, and if so, how will you campaign? Did you broach this idea with your contacts in Washington during your recent stint at Georgetown University? Obviously there is a growing global call for a moderate and modern Muslim leader to take the UNsecretary-general post. Are you that candidate? Why or why not?

Anwar: I have [made] some comments to that effect ... The problem is that the discussion involves presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers. The discussion has been going on for the past six months, more serious now with non-governmental organizations and the UN apparatuses - across the world. So I don't think it's polite to be so dismissive in rejecting the option. Most of them asked me to give it serious thought, or at least to consider the option.To my colleagues here in the Keadilan and the opposition I have stated that my commitment is here. They asked, why don't I state a categoric rejection or denial? I told them I don't think that would be polite. I am not saying that it would be easy for me [to get the UN post] in the event I choose to run, but I think it is a serious proposition. But in the discussion with party leaders, I have made it clear that I am ready to work here.

ATol: What are your thoughts on the unfolding events in the Middle East, including the spiraling Israel-Lebanon conflict, the UnitedStates' occupation of Iraq and the growing pressure emerging on Iran? As UN secretary general, how would you hypothetically respond to these challenges?

Anwar: It is disgraceful that the US has given Israel yet another blank check in its offensive against Lebanon even when the whole worldis condemning it. The US has to realize that it needs to be consistent to its own ideals of promoting freedom and democracy in the MiddleEast even if that requires distancing itself from Israel. This will only serve to infuriate Muslim opinion even more. The few Arab countries that the US can deal with are all unpopular with their own citizens. In reality, the UN can only do so much if the US continues to stand by Israel come what may. Israel must be reined in, and genuine democracy must be promoted in the region - which means the US must be prepared to deal with parties that are not willing to be dictated by its whims and fancies. This is really unfortunate, because historically the US has been seen as the beacon of freedom and democracy throughout the world. The neo-conservative policy unfortunately has only exacerbated anti-Americanism in the Muslim world.

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