Monday, October 13, 2008
MALAYSIA LETTER: Blogs and online media are fuelling controversy as mainstream media remain tightly controlled, writes Clifford Coonan
NO ONE can say Malaysian politics lacks lurid stories. The grisly killing of a Mongolian model, links between that murder and the man tipped as Malaysia's next prime minister, fresh accusations that former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim is a sodomite and sedition charges against a popular online editor are among the big issues in the press in Malaysia over recent days.
That is to say nothing of the decision by the prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, not to run in the next election as a way of averting an uprising against him within the ranks of his own United Malays National Organisation party, which forms the core of the National Front coalition that has ruled Malaysia since it became independent in 1957.
All the stories are technically separate, but connected in a thickening web of sleaze.
The government had a disastrous showing in elections in March, which combined with rising fuel costs and financial fears, is generating the kind of turbulence that threatens stability in the southeast Asian nation.
Abdullah's decision to step down opens the door for deputy premier Najib Razak to become premier. The former defence minister is also the subject of lots of speculation, although not in the mainstream media, which is effectively controlled by political parties in Malaysia. The country's hundreds of blogs are seen as independent platforms and offering anti-government commentaries on social and political issues.
The editor of the best-known anti-government news website, "Malaysia Today", is on trial on sedition charges for implying that Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, were involved in the 2006 killing of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a 28-year-old Mongolian interpreter and model.
Journalist Raja Petra Raja Kamaruddin, who also faces other accusations of trying to undermine the government, made the accusations in an article on April 25th titled "Let's Send the Altantuya Murderers to Hell". Raja Petra (58), who denies the accusation, is already in jail in a separate case under national security legislation that allows indefinite detention without trial.
The two cases against Raja Petra have provoked an outcry against the government, with detractors accusing it of misusing the judiciary to crack down on critics and suppress freedom of speech. If convicted, Raja Petra faces up to three years in jail.
Two policemen have been accused of shooting Altantuya Shaariibuu twice in the head and then blowing up her body with explosives in a jungle clearing near Kuala Lumpur.
Abdul Razak Baginda, a close associate of Najib, is charged with abetting the murder. All three are currently on trial. The two policemen were part of the Special Action Squad, an elite team of bodyguards directly under Najib's control when he was defence minister.
Najib's name has barely come up in official media reports about the murder, except to say that he swears before Allah that he didn't know the woman.
Some websites say that it was Najib who in fact introduced the translator/model to Abdul Razak, allegations they say are backed up evidence.
But there are a whole series of sub-plots to the mystery, involving tampering with statements, disappearing witnesses and interference with witnesses.
In a letter she left behind, Shaariibuu claimed she had been blackmailing Abdul Razak without giving any details.
The prosecution says Abdul Razak had her killed because she pestered him for money after he ended an affair to support a child that she claimed he had fathered.
Najib is also being linked to accepting a large commission through a private company "for co-ordination and support services" on the purchase of French submarines for the Malaysian military.
Watching these various strands draw together is opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who says he has won over enough defectors from the government to form a new administration and is confident the country's beleaguered government will be gone by the important Eid al-Adha Muslim festival, which falls on December 8th.
There are suspicions Anwar is crying wolf - his earlier self-imposed deadline of September 16th for his supporters to walk across the house and force a confidence vote passed. "We have built our base to go forward, if it does not happen this week or next week, it can possibly happen before Eid al-Adha," he told the Berita Harian newspaper, adding that it would happen peacefully. He needs 30 MPs to walk over in order to have a majority in the 222-seat parliament.
At present the opposition coalition, made up of Anwar's Keadilan party, the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia and the Democratic Action party, has 82 seats.
Anwar is one of Malaysia's best-known political figures. He was dismissed in the late 1990s by then premier Mahathir Mohamad after he started calling for Mahathir to quit.
He was charged with sodomy and corruption and the image of him in court in 1998 with black eye and bruises after he was beaten up by a police chief was flashed around the world.
He was convicted on both charges and spent six years in jail. Human rights groups called him a political prisoner.
Malaysia's Supreme Court overturned the sodomy conviction in 2004, after Abdullah became prime minister following Mahathir's retirement, and he was freed from prison.
Anwar was in court again last week on fresh charges of sodomising a young aide, charges that the father of six says are politically motivated.
But if he is convicted it will be a serious setback to his political ambitions. Whatever happens, Malaysia's political scene is hardly likely to get any less colourful in the coming months.
© 2008 The Irish Times