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October 7, 1998, Wednesday
Editorial Desk

Malaysia's Leader Betrays the Future

By Sam Nunn, Douglas Paal and Paul Wolfowitz

In the Vietnam War era, Anwar Ibrahim was a student leader in Malaysia, admired for his magnetism, Islamic faith and intense nationalism. He spent 22 months in jail under a Draconian law left over from the British period. After he gained his freedom, he entered politics, rising to become Deputy Prime Minister, building a reputation for tolerance and civility along the way. By the mid-1990's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was grooming him to be his heir.

But Dr. Mahathir dismissed Mr. Anwar last month, and today the former deputy is back in a Malaysian jail, held under the same throwback colonial law, which allows indefinite detention without trial. For Dr. Mahathir, who is 72, a smooth succession would have been the capstone of 17 years of brilliant success in building modern Malaysia. Instead, Mr. Anwar's supporters are gathering in the streets in a remarkable show of defiance.

It is difficult to understand why things are going so wrong in Malaysia. In the mid-1980's, as the dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos was collapsing in the Philippines, Dr. Mahathir was among the most penetrating analysts of its failures. Yet today, when buffeted by the global economic crisis, he seems not to have learned any lessons from the end of the Marcos era.

Mr. Anwar was never shy about differing with his mentor's policies; as financial matters got increasingly desperate, Dr. Mahathir had him arrested on various disputed charges, including homosexuality -- a crime in the country. When Mr. Anwar turned up in court heavily bruised and claiming he had been beaten in prison, Dr. Mahathir suggested he had inflicted the injuries on himself. Some of Mr. Anwar's supporters were arrested (though some have since been released), and yesterday Dr. Mahathir expelled several members of his party who were linked to Mr. Anwar.

All of this is both alarming and dismaying. Mr. Anwar, 51, represents Malaysia's enlightened, generous side. For many years Dr. Mahathir seemed to embrace his younger colleague, whose combination of religious conviction and executive ability inspired great hopes for his country's future. Today, Mr. Anwar's brave defiance and faith that justice will prevail stand starkly against the full force of the Malaysian Government.

It is sad that Dr. Mahathir's questionable allegations about Mr. Anwar seem to have intimidated many of Malaysia's friends into silence, even though they realize that Dr. Mahathir's actions are threatening his country's future. In light of the damage done by Dr. Mahathir to the universal principles of human rights and to Islamic principles of justice, it was surprising that the American Government's reaction was tardy and weak at first. Fortunately, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin stated forcefully last week that what has happened to Mr. Anwar is ''deeply, deeply, deeply troubling.'' As the world's finance ministers meet in Washington this week, they should also express their concern about the treatment of their former counterpart.

It will be sad, too, if leaders attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Malaysia in November do not seek to ease Mr. Anwar's plight.

Mr. Anwar should be released on bail until his case goes to trial, and he should be given proper protection. His trial must be open, fair and without customary political influence. Outside groups should be allowed to observe. Ordinary Malaysians should be free to conduct orderly demonstrations supporting (or opposing) him, not chased through the streets and arrested.

Malaysia's good name, as well as its ability to attract the investment needed for its economic recovery, require that Mr. Anwar and his associates be allowed to voice their opinions -- and be given due process.

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