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Intolerance levels rising in Mahathir's Malaysia

Intolerance levels rising in Mahathir's Malaysia

Intolerance levels are rising in Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's Malaysia judging by arrests of opposition activists, a clamp down on media critics, and use of water cannon and teargas on demonstrators.

This week police, prompted by Mahathir supporters, arrested a leading activist who, a pro-government newspaper says, planned Philippines-style people power protests to oust the government.

Opposition parties say Ezam Mohd Noor, former political secretary to Mahathir's jailed rival Anwar Ibrahim and leader of the youth wing of Parti Keadilan Nasional, is being set up after launching a campaign highlighting alleged misuse of public funds.

Amnesty International issued a statement on Wednesday saying Ezam "is being held in incommunicado detention, is at risk of ill-treatment and should be immediately released".

Ezam, who looks and talks like Anwar, finds out if he is to be charged on Friday. If convicted he could be jailed for up to three years under the Sedition Act. Mahathir justifies such tactics by pointing to instability all round Southeast Asia and the risk that disharmony could breed communal violence in multicultural Malaysia.

Just last week, Mahathir raised a laugh at a conference on globalisation with an allusion to his tough policies.

"In Malaysia we always respond before the riots get too big," he said in light of the turmoil seen around the region following the Asian financial crisis.

Opponents say Mahathir is scaremongering to shore up faltering support, but it does strike a chord in some quarters.

"At least we're better off than those other countries. Look what's happening in Indonesia," a middle-aged ethnic Chinese woman in a smart neighbourhood coffee shop was overheard telling her friends after ruing the way the government was behaving.

Malaysia's judicial system has suffered and, according to the Kuala Lumpur Bar Committee, representing 4,000 lawyers, is fraught with examples of "abuse, incompetence and corruption".

"The allegiance of judges is not to the executive or to the prime minister but to the nation and it is the sworn duty of a judge to uphold the constitution," it said in a memorandum given to the government last month.

TURNING THE SCREW

After two decades in power, Mahathir is in his twilight, and the November 1999 election result and recent criticism, even from within his own party, show his popularity at a low ebb.

"The intolerance comes from fright. I think the regime is frightened because it sees power slipping away from it," veteran freelance journalist M.G.G. Pillai commented.

Malays have been deeply divided since Mahathir sacked his former deputy Anwar in 1998.

The coalition has a two-thirds majority, but crucially Mahathir's United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) won less than half the ethnic Malay vote, leaving it dependent on support from the minority ethnic Chinese and Indian parties and a Chinese business community that prizes stability.

Healing the Malay rift will be hard while Anwar lies in jail serving a 15 year sentence for humiliating graft and sex crimes he says were cooked up to thwart a challenge to Mahathir.

The opposition front is turning the screw and authorities have focused their attention on Keadilan which fights for reform and the release of former deputy premier Anwar.

Kuala Lumpur is quiet, but rallies up north, notably in Mahathir's home state of Kedah, drew large crowds and police use of tactics unseen for some time - watercannon and teargas.

The authorities appear more circumspect in dealings with Parti Islami se-Malaysia, which leads the opposition front.

Mahathir is trying to persuade the leaders of the Islamic party to join talks so he can regain favour with disenchanted Malays.

A PAS rally of over 20,000 people in Kedah passed off peacefully last Saturday. But PAS's spiritual leader this week warned government's efforts to silence opposition could lead people to seek other ways of expressing their views.

LATE DELIVERY MAKES OLD NEWS

It is not just protesters the authorities try to shut up.

The government for the past two months has kept up verbal attacks on a local online news site, which in December won an International Press Freedom award from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The government says Malaysiakini.com, which means Malaysia Now, receives indirect funding from George Soros, the international financier who Mahathir blames for starting a run on the ringgit during the Asian crisis.

Two foreign magazines have also incurred wrath.

Issues of both the Far East Economic Review (FEER) and Asiaweek, both based in Hong Kong, were held back from circulation, without any explanation.

The issues contained articles critical of the government.

FEER's late February edition finally went on sale this week, as did one of Asiaweek's, but another is still delayed.

Asiaweek fell foul of Mahathir in January for a cover story, and unflattering photograph, portraying the 75-year-old premier as tired and out of touch with what people want.

In the article, Mahathir said he did not care how he would be remembered, because in all likelihood he would be dead, but he certainly seems to care what people say now.


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