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Southeast Asia

Embattled opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim bent on Malaysian reform Add to ...

Anwar Ibrahim was supposed to be in jail right now. The leader of Malaysia’s opposition would be convicted of having sex with a male aide, everyone here expected, and jailed long enough to ensure he posed no threat in the country’s coming elections.

But after his surprise acquittal earlier this month, Mr. Anwar suddenly has a very different residence in mind. “The next time we meet,” he says conspiratorially as we sit in his party’s headquarters on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur for his first interview with a Western newspaper since the verdict, “it will be in a different office.”

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A smile spreads above his greying goatee as he points up and beyond me. He means Putrajaya, the suburb of Kuala Lumpur that’s home to the office of the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

Southeast Asia begins 2012 as a region in upheaval. Myanmar’s generals have begun unexpectedly tearing down their authoritarian system, and neighbouring Thailand’s coup-prone army stood aside last year and let the opposition it had previously confronted in the streets take power via the ballot box.

Mr. Anwar is convinced that Malaysia, a nominally democratic nation that has been dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) since the country gained independence from Britain in 1957, will be the next to see sweeping change.

“There’s definitely a Southeast Asian Spring taking place. No question about it. … We are between the ancien régime and the rebellion of the masses,” says the man sometimes portrayed as the Nelson Mandela of this Muslim majority state. Mr. Anwar says the opposition would win a fairly held vote – and he warns that Malaysia could see scenes like those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square if it is somehow prevented from taking power.

Tens of thousands of Malaysians have already shown their willingness to demonstrate, marching through the streets of Kuala Lumpur last July to call for reforms to the country’s electoral system, which is seen as having been gerrymandered in the ruling party’s favour

“We want free and fair elections,” Mr. Anwar says. And if not? “Then we will fight. The people will not take it. No civilized country would accept the rape of the nation.”

Having managed to maintain and build support through 14 years of sodomy charges and other smears – no small feat in a conservative country that bleeps out words like “bang” from reruns of How I Met Your Mother – there’s suddenly a sense in Malaysia that Mr. Anwar might just end up in Putrajaya before the year is out.

Another jail term would likely have brought an end to the political career of the 64-year-old, who was deputy prime minister and UMNO’s heir apparent until he fell out with the autocratic Mahathir Mohammed in 1998 over the handling of that year’s Asian financial crisis. The relationship between the two men, long described as being similar to father and son, quickly dissolved into acrimony, mud-slinging and violence.

Mr. Mahathir called for police to investigate allegations that Mr. Anwar was corrupt and gay. Mr. Anwar was duly arrested, beaten by police and sentenced to 14 years in prison, although that sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004. (Sodomy is illegal in Malaysia, though the colonial-era statute seems to be used almost exclusively against Mr. Anwar, a married father of six. Charges against Mr. Anwar – who has denied that he’s gay – and his associates account for four of seven recent uses of the law.)

The latest sodomy charges initially seemed to follow the old script, forcing Mr. Anwar to spend more time defending his reputation than building opposition to the government. The repeated allegations are scoffed at by many in cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur but likely have damaged Mr. Anwar’s popularity in more conservative rural areas. In a sign of how dimly gay rights are viewed in Malaysia, Mr. Anwar came under fire this week by the government-controlled press after he called the sodomy law “archaic.” He was forced to repeat a previous statement that he does “not promote homosexuality in public sphere and domain.”

Since his acquittal, friends and allies say Mr. Anwar – always a workaholic – is more seized than ever with his Mandela-inspired vision of opening his country’s political system and ending the institutionalized political bias toward ethnic Malays (who are favoured for civil service and military posts ahead of the country’s Chinese and Indian minorities). He crams in as many meetings and campaign rallies as the day can fit, to the point where Some wonder whether his wiry frame, already besieged by arthritis and back pains caused by a 1998 police beating that was followed by six years in jail, is up to the task.

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