In what is seen as a sign of desperation by the Mahathir regime, Ezam Nor, a leading Malaysian political activist, was arrested in early March for his role in a series of well-attended street demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur over the last few months.
Ezam Nor, 35, a one-time aide to former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, has been considered a threat to the Mahathir dictatorship since he revealed official documents proving massive high-level corruption involving Mahathir's children and members of his cabinet. Ezam had reportedly threatened to hold demonstrations throughout the country to topple the government: the sort of thing not many would dare to say in public.
Ezam's arrest came after an embarrassing episode set off by the government's invitation to the leaderships of Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) and the National Justice Party (Keadilan), headed by Anwar's wife, to a closed-door meeting with the ruling United Malay National Organization (UMNO). The media called it 'the Malay unity talk': Mahathir argued that it was aimed at relieving the increasing friction within the Malay community.
Although Keadilan stayed away from such gestures, PAS accepted the invitation, instantly gaining media coverage and even praise from UMNO leaders. The PAS decision was made at the risk of losing support from its erstwhile supporters. After enjoying media publicity it once could only dream of, PAS announced its withdrawal, hours before the much-vaunted talk between its president, Fadzil Noor, and Mahathir was due to take place. Instead, the party set conditions that are almost impossible for the UMNO to accept before such talks can take place: that the RM1 billion oil royalty withdrawn from the PAS-ruled Terengganu state government be returned, and that its popular fortnightly tabloid Harakah be restored to its original publication permit of twice a week. PAS also demanded that the harassment of peaceful protesters be stopped immediately.
Mahathir had earlier agreed to PAS's demands that issues such as Islam and the judiciary be discussed in the talks. When asked, Mahathir said he would also look into PAS's other demands, indicating for the first time his willingness to sit down with an opposition party which until recently has been treated with contempt.
PAS said that the demands were made in order to create a conducive atmosphere for such talks. "We don't want to be like the mid-east talks, where they continue to shoot people on the one hand, while discussions are going on," said PAS president Fadzil Noor.
Mahathir's tightly-controlled media has already started to churn out almost daily propaganda programs emphasizing UMNO's "willingness to swallow its pride" and sit down with PAS. This is, however, far from the truth. UMNO has been weakened since Mahathir sacked his deputy on bizarre sex charges and jailed him after equally bizarre trials. That shook the Malay Muslims and a large part of Malaysia, but it was the former who felt strongly that something was wrong with the Mahathir government, and ultimately took to the streets in large numbers.
Three years into the Anwar saga, demonstrations are no longer frowned upon in Malaysia. This year alone, no less than five large anti-Mahathir rallies have been held, including two in Mahathir's constituency in northern Kedah, attended by hundreds of thousands according to police estimates. Most of the protests, although peaceful, have been violently dispersed using teargas and police brutality, but none of these tactics seem to have helped to instill the fear of arrest. To date, more than 2,000 people, mostly Malay Muslims, have been arrested and charged with participating in "illegal gatherings", a phrase the regime uses for anything from opposition rallies to walkathon events. Recent events in neighboring Manila and Jakarta have led to more street protests, attracting tens of thousands of people.
When asked what other channels there are to air dissatisfaction to official policies and abuses, the government cannot answer, and urges people to go to the ballot boxes, which are held under close supervision of the now discredited police force and the government-commissioned election bodies.
As well as terrorizing protesters, the Mahathir regime has also banned publications that even mildly reflect dissenting views. To date, the permits of a dozen magazines and newspapers have been withdrawn, copies confiscated or their editors warned. This has led to a surge in the use of the internet, which Mahathir's government has been promoting in his attempt to make Malaysia a 'silicon valley' for the Asian region. Websites providing almost hourly-updated news have been set up to assist the reformasi movement, informing people of demonstrations and exposing government abuses, while other sites give 'balanced' reporting. Even this the government refuses to tolerate, as shown by its harassment of an online-news portal, malaysiakini.com, which is now the most logged-onto news-site in Malaysia. The government media has accused the site of being financed by George Soros: a 'crime' not because of Soros' alleged manipulation of currencies, but merely because Mahathir dislikes him.
Still the battered regime is trying to persuade PAS to talk. Until now, PAS has responded cautiously. The party has twice been duped into joining hands with the ruling UMNO. This time, Mahathir may not have any plans to offer the party a role in the government, but hopes to neutralize it by some other means. And that, in view of recent events, is a task few believe Mahathir can achieve.
Abdar-Rahman Kova is a correspondent for Crescent International, the newsmagazine of the global Islamic movement.