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Malaysia's Anwar Returns to Hero's Welcome

  • Azhar Sukri

Malaysia's former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim has come home to a rock star's welcome Sunday. He returned from undergoing back surgery in Germany following his release from prison last month. His return is raising questions about how this could impact Malaysia's divided political opposition.

With the now familiar cries of "long live Anwar" and "reform," several hundred of Anwar Ibrahim's supporters threw flowers and strained to catch a glimpse of the garlanded former prime minister-in-waiting as he emerged from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Anwar Ibrahim returned home Sunday following a trip to Germany where he had surgery for a spinal problem. The once-jailed politician also made a short religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

He was released last month after Malaysia's highest court overturned his conviction for sodomy. But he served out an earlier term for corruption. The Anwar camp says both charges were politically motivated after he challenged and was fired in 1998 by long-serving prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad.

Now that Anwar Ibrahim is back, expectations are high for him to start working towards bringing together the country's deeply divided political opposition parties.

Because of his conviction, he is legally barred from holding any official party posts until 2008, but he can still galvanize political groups.

Elizabeth Wong, the secretary-general of the National Human Rights Society of Malaysia, says: "A lot of people hope that he will inject a new vigor, a new spirit into this whole movement for reform and for democracy and human rights, and that's what we hope for," he said. "How that will be done, I think we still need a few more months to sit down with him and discuss how we can go forward."

The ruling National Front coalition, comprised of parties from the majority Malays and the minority Chinese and Indian communities, has ruled the country since independence from Britain in 1957.

The diverse opposition parties have never been able to form a coherent force. Critics of the government say that lack of an effective opposition has led to an erosion of civil freedoms and democratic institutions.

Anwar Ibrahim has come to represent a force for change and reform here is Malaysia.

But the country's new prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, marking on year in office Sunday, has already begun instituting a number of reforms that may take the steam out of the opposition drive to appeal to voters.

This, combined with rapid economic growth, is going to make the job of anyone looking to unite the country's opposition all the more difficult. But analysts say that if anyone can do that job in Malaysia, it is Anwar Ibrahim.

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