Is Malaysia Ripe For A Popular Revolt?

In an upscale Kuala Lumpur suburb, just around the corner from Domino's Pizza, a 40-year-old banker stands in front of Anwar Ibrahim's house, hawking reformasi bumper stickers. Vendors sell everything from Anwar buttons, 80 cents apiece, to Anwar T-shirts and videos, $4. Business is brisk, as more than 10,000 Malaysians flock to the sacked Finance Minister's home most nights to hear him denounce Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government.

The party won't last much longer. The police are threatening to charge Anwar with holding rallies without a permit. Even Anwar's most ardent fans expect his arrest after the Commonwealth Games end on Sept. 21. But Mahathir hasn't dared pounce as long as thousands of athletes, tourists, and dignitaries, including Queen Elizabeth II, are in town for the 10-day, $5 billion sports jamboree.

SEEKING ALLIES. Like the track athletes, Anwar is in a race against the clock. From nothing, he's trying to build a political base capable of challenging Mahathir's United National Malaysian Organization, which controls all the levers of power. He aims to create what he calls "a movement of the people," a popular revolt to topple Mahathir.

It's a tall order, with a slim chance of success. Anwar's radical reforms would attack the heart of the system built by Mahathir and his UNMO party. He regularly denounces cronyism and wants to end bailouts of politically wired companies such as Renong. And he stresses political demands for more freedom, justice, and the rule of law.

His ideas appeal to disenchanted Malaysians as diverse as urban yuppies and conservative rural Muslims. "My intention is to ensure that this momentum can be sustained," says Anwar. He is counting on the recession to bolster his support. So far, however, Mahathir seems to have the upper hand as the stock market has stabilized and bank lending has increased since Mahathir imposed currency controls on Sept. 1. But those gains may yet prove short-lived.

A second track, of forging ties with Islamic and Chinese groups in a grand anti-Mahathir alliance, is showing some success. Muslim leaders appear at Anwar's rallies, and Lim Kit Siang, head of the opposition Democratic Action Party, regularly visits his house. "There is definitely room to cooperate," says Lim. Anwar adds: "The reform agenda has transcended [partisan politics]."

Anwar has come a long way since he was fired on Sept. 2. For days, fearing imminent arrest, he kept to his house. But even as he speaks out, the deck is still heavily stacked against him. Mahathir controls the state-security apparatus and has begun piling on the pressure. However, he hasn't yet turned the big guns of the Internal Security Act on his former protege as he has on other opponents in the past. A legacy of British colonial rule, the act allows the government to detain suspects indefinitely without trial. But its use could trigger widespread condemnation at home and abroad. "That would make Anwar a martyr," says one diplomat in Kuala Lumpur. "It's a real loser."

SMEAR CAMPAIGN. Instead, Mahathir's administration is attempting to smear Anwar with allegations of sexual misconduct, moral turpitude, and treason. A recently published book lays them out in graphic detail, though the government has not yet brought any formal charges. Anwar insists they are "fabrications." But, says the diplomat, "if people believe them, he's finished."

Anwar's downfall will also be complete if he can't build sufficient support to head off his own arrest. As long as he is free to speak out, he can get time--as well as a growing band of Malaysians--on his side and behind his ideas.

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