Najib vs. Anwar: Epic Battle
Hidden in thousands of pages of US diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to Asia Sentinel, is a years-long battle for Malaysian political primacy between Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
It is a battle that Najib appears to have won, at least for now, having been named prime minister while an embattled Anwar remains in the dock, fighting charges that he sodomized an aide.
The cables, more than 900,000 words long and covering 15 years from 1993 to 2008, depict an Anwar who from the start saw Najib as a danger to him personally. He was in frequent touch with US Embassy officials, warning constantly that Najib was the perpetrator of a long series of corrupt acts in the procurement of defense equipment and that he was a danger to the exercise of democracy.
Equally, the cables depict an American legation determined to avoid becoming ensnared in Malaysian politics by taking sides. Christopher LaFleur, US ambassador from 2004 to 2007, wrote in a July 31, 2007 cable to US Army Gen. George W. Casey that “Malaysia is important to us because it is an economically successful, stable, predominantly Muslim country that, over the longer term, may be able to support us more strongly in places like the Middle East… The overall tone in Malaysian-American relations has improved considerably since Abdullah Badawi became Prime Minister in late-2003, and we seek to translate this into substantive improvements. Bilateral relations eroded under Abdullah's vituperative predecessor Dr Mahathir Mohamad, but Abdullah brought with him a friendlier style and an interest in projecting a more moderate image, both for himself and for his country. “
The embassy, however, watched closely as Anwar forged an unwieldy opposition coalition from the Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the Chinese Democratic Action Party and Anwar’s own Parti Keadilan Rakyat, made up largely of urban Malays.
From the time Anwar was released from prison after a 1999 trial on what were widely seen to be bogus charges of corruption and sexual deviancy, the cables show a United Malays National Organisation paralyzed by inaction and led by an ineffective Abdullah Badawi while opposition forces raise enthusiastic crowds of tens of thousands of cheering spectators demanding political reform.
The need for Anwar’s crucial leadership of the awkward coalition is underscored by a Feb. 23, 2007 cable signed by LaFleur. “PAS valued Anwar as the ‘bridge’ between the non-Malays especially the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and PAS, and as a name-brand figure able to attract voters,” La Fleur wrote.
PAS elders, he wrote, found it impossible to communicate with the DAP and other non-Malay parties. He quotes Azizan Abdul Razak of PAS saying that PAS and DAP were “like chickens and ducks, feeding at the same trough, but unable to talk to one another.” Anwar was seen as the only one who could blunt the “ruling National Front juggernaut.”
Anwar, LaFleur wrote on July 17, 2007, was concentrating his attacks on then Deputy Prime Minister Najib as a way to “open up fissures in UMNO middle ranks that will give him other opportunities.”
As pressure continued on the ruling coalition, Anwar led enthusiastic rallies all over the country, culminating in the March 2008 national elections that ended the Barisan Nasional’s 50-year two-thirds hold on parliament. The cables in general seem to indicate a sense of growing panic and paralysis on the part of Barisan leaders, particularly in UMNO, and a desire to drive Abdullah Badawi from the premiership to make way for Najib. Anwar compounded the fears by displaying an eight-minute videotape of a prominent lawyer, VK Lingam, apparently telling a Supreme Court judge to fix key appointments in the government’s favor, thus spurring a royal inquiry into judicial corruption.
According to Ambassador James Keith, who succeeded LaFleur in July 2007, UMNO leaders worried “about Anwar's drawing power on the streets. That Anwar and other opposition leaders proceeded successfully in the face of PM Abdullah's personal warnings should bolster the opposition's resolve and embolden them to plan further events.“
After Anwar returned to politics by taking back his Penang parliamentary seat in a by-election, it was only a matter of time before UMNO replaced a faltering Abdullah Badawi with Najib. As Mahathir goaded Najib to act in April 2007, Anwar was telling the diplomats that his opposition coalition “had a ‘realistic’ opportunity to topple PM Abdullah's government by bringing over 30 or more BN MPs for a no-confidence vote in Parliament,” Keith wrote.
All of that was brought to a halt on June 30, 2008,when former aide Mohamed Saiful Bukhary Azlan, charged that he had been sodomized by Anwar, a case that goes on to this day. The charges brought the opposition’s momentum to a halt.
On July 23, 2008, apparently aware that this second sodomy arrest was being viewed skeptically by the international community, Malaysian Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar assembled a flock of foreign diplomats to give them the government’s view.
According to a cable on that date signed by Keith, Syed Hamid dismissed claims of conspiracy, defended the police handling of the case and emphasized that Anwar was “being treated fairly.”
“The Government of Malaysia is becoming aware of the negative impact the Anwar case has had on its international reputation and is acting to change the negative foreign perceptions,” the cable read.
“Today's briefing was an attempt by the GOM to influence the diplomatic community, counter Anwar's own messaging the day before, and work against critical international media attention.”
The skeptical tone of the cable is difficult to miss. Syed Hamid, the cable said, “shared no new information with the group as a whole and we doubt the briefing swayed diplomats to change their prior opinions; indeed, we heard a good measure of cynicism from some of the gathered diplomats. The government's decision to hold the event and the Ambassador's discussion with the Home Minister afterward served to reinforce our belief that the Government of Malaysia already has decided to charge Anwar for sodomy, and it will take this next step by mid-August.”
The cables take note of the fact that Anwar filed a police complaint on July 1, 2008 against the national police chief and the Attorney General. He held a press conference and later headlined a mass rally, using the podium to attack Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor, “whom he believes to be behind the current sodomy allegations.”
Anwar's wife Wan Azizah met with Abdullah Badawi, the cable notes, “to provide him with information on Najib's connection to Anwar's accuser, and receive Abdullah's assurances her husband would be treated fairly… The sodomy case highlights that the risks for Anwar from the political status quo are significant and very personal, and provides impetus for Anwar to move ahead more aggressively to try to topple the BN government and stop Najib from becoming the next Prime Minister.”
That was 2008 and that is pretty much where the political situation still stands three years later. Frustrated with the sodomy case and hamstrung by internal political squabbling within his coalition, Anwar may not be a spent force, but Najib has the far stronger hand. The cables contain no smoking guns about the sodomy case. But the trial itself, with the prosecution’s numerous missteps and admissions that Najib, his wife and police officials met with Saiful before he made the allegations against Anwar, provides enough evidence of that.