Why MPs protested over the Anwar trial
Last week saw an unusual event in Australian politics: backbench members of Parliament from both sides took a foreign affairs initiative, independent of their party leaderships. Sixty Members and Senators – Labor, Liberal, Green and independent – signed a letter which was presented to the Malaysian High Commissioner protesting against the current trial of Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of “sodomy.”
The letter was signed by, among others, Laurie Ferguson, Malcolm Turnbull, Greg Hunt, Bob Brown, Nick Xenophon, Duncan Kerr, Deputy Speaker Anna Burke, Jennie George, Gary Gray and Mark Dreyfus QC.
It followed a speech which I gave in the House of Representatives on 3 February, in which I drew the House’s attention to the 2nd Sodomy trial in Kuala Lumpur of Anwar Ibrahim.
I’m very grateful to all the Members and Senators who signed the letter. I can’t recall another backbench initiative like this in recent times.
Why should Australian Members of Parliament stick their noses into the affairs of a country like Malaysia, which is a friend and neighbour? I would say it is precisely because Malaysia is a friend and neighbour that we care what happens there. No-one is surprised at show trials and political persecution in North Korea or Burma. When it happens in a country which is one of our region’s relative success stories, we are shocked and dismayed.
Many Australian’s have spoken for Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s democratically elected leader under house arrest by an authoritarian regime. In some sense these legal torments of Anwar are more egregious as they are happening in a developing democracy that says organs of the state such as the courts or police should not be used to persecute a democratic political opponent.
People-to-people contact between Australians and Malaysians has become very close in recent years, through students studying in Australia, steadily growing tourism in both directions and growing business ties. The persecution of Anwar Ibrahim, however, does not put Malaysia in a good light.
The repeated attempts by Malaysia’s ruling party to drive Anwar out of politics by framing him up on obviously false charges is a disgraceful story which has now been running for more than ten years. Anwar was Deputy Prime Minister in 1998 when he fell out with the then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – no friend of Australia. He was arrested, beaten up, tried on faked evidence and coerced testimony, then jailed for four years, before his conviction was finally overturned in 2004. Now the same charges have been laid again.
Recently the Wall Street Journal published a first-hand account of how the Malaysian Special Branch police fabricated the charges that led to Anwar’s first trial. Munawar Anees recalled how he had been starved and beaten into signing a false confession which implicated Anwar. The same things are happening again now. It would be intolerable in any democratic country for an accuser to front at the home of the Prime Minister before he then went to the impartial Malaysian police. This is what happened to Anwar Ibrahim when has accuser was succoured by Rosman Razak, the Prime Ministers wife, before he went to charge Anwar at the Police station.
These are the tactics which Anwar’s enemies are willing to resort to, in order to eliminate the threat he poses to those currently in power.
The reason the ruling party UMNO fears Anwar is simply that he is the first Malay politician to challenge successfully its monopoly of the Malay vote, which is the basis of its long-standing hold on power. At the 2008 elections Anwar’s People’s Justice Party and its allies won 60 seats away from UMNO and its allies, creating a viable two-party system for the first time. UMNO fears that he will win the next election unless he is stopped, and it seems that at least some elements of UMNO and their allies in the police are willing to resort to any means to stop him. Their nightmare scenario is for the urban, educated Malays together with Indian and Chinese minorities together with deputies from the rebellious Sabah and Sarawah provinces, uniting to form a parliamentary majority.
Malaysia , however is not like North Korea, sealed off from world opinion. The Malaysian people and the Malaysian government care about their reputation in the region and the world. There have been demonstrations by UMNO ‘youth’ outside the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur. A leading supporter of the Malaysian Prime Minister sought to deflect Malaysian opinion by responding that ‘Michael Danby, who organized the petition is a homosexual’. Sad and pathetic though such a reaction is, the response on many blogs and new sites, by ordinary Malaysians who are outraged at the trial, repudiate such prejudice and show hope for a civic discourse as Malaysia’s democratic ethos develops.
The Malaysian media reports what is said about Malaysia in other countries. That’s why an intervention such as our bipartisan letter to the High Commissioner, politely but clearly setting out our strong protest against persecution of Anwar Ibrahim, can be effective, and why it is such an important initiative. Hopefully when Anwar is free of these torments the best answer to those who would like to keep Malaysia a one party state, will be the peaceful transition to power al la Japan, Taiwan and Korea of an Opposition Government.
When that happens, Australia’s politicians will have done more to cement genuine friendship with Malaysia than oodles of “diplomacy.”
- Michael Danby is the Member for Melbourne Ports and Chair of the Parliamentary Sub-committee for Foreign Affairs.
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