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Malaysia's Opposition Plans for Changes as PM Mahathir Mohamad's Retirement Approaches


Malaysia's long overshadowed opposition parties are looking to join forces to challenge the ruling United Malays National Organization in next years' general elections. The opposition hopes that the October retirement of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, after 22 years in power, will provide an opportunity for more political change.

Justice Party vice president, Tian Chua, is working hard to convince opposition parties to unite and campaign for reform in Malaysia, now that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is exiting political life.

Mr. Chua, like a number of opposition politicians, had a lot of time to think about change while spending two years in prison under Malaysia's controversial Internal Security Act. He was detained, but never tried, after leading a protest against the imprisonment of Justice Party founder and former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar Ibrahim was convicted of political and sexual crimes. But some Western governments and human-rights groups believe the trials were used by the government to silence a powerful political rival.

Mr. Chua was accused of conspiring to topple the government and detained under the Internal Security Act, until his release on June 5.

The Internal Security Act has been sharply criticized by groups such as Amnesty International as a tool to "stifle peaceful political dissent." It allows police to arbitrarily arrest and detain a person without trial for an indefinite time on the suspicion he or she may pose a threat to national security.

Prime Minister Mahathir says the Internal Security Act is an effective tool to fight terrorist groups threatening the country's security. Repealing this law is high on Mr. Chua's agenda, and he and other reform movement activists think the time is right to push for change.

"The people are calling not just for the release of Anwar Ibrahim, but [for] anti-corruption, a change of leadership, new political culture in the government," he said. "So all these things has made reform alive."

Malaysian activist Irene Xavier, who is the director of the feminist and labor organization Friends of Women, was also arrested and jailed for two years under the Internal Security Act during the late 1980s for organizing women workers. She is pessimistic that the next government will be able to change the political landscape. "There has been so much systematic removal of democratic space in Malaysia that I think Malaysia, after Mahathir, will not be very different," she said.

Mr. Mahathir's UMNO coalition has led all of Malaysia's governments since the country's independence from Britain in 1957. He has picked his successor for when he retires in October.

For Ms. Xavier, democracy gains will depend on two factors. "One is how the succession within UMNO, which is the party that Mahathir leads, what form it will take," she said. "Who actually gets to be prime minister and deputy prime minister after him."

Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is Mr. Mahathir's chosen successor. Most analysts agree Mr. Badawi will continue the policies of Mr. Mahathir with little change. His challenge will be a smooth transition of power as members of the ruling party jockey for position. The opposition says an appointed successor marginalizes citizen participation in government.

Mr. Chua says if opposition parties can marshal their clout in the next election, they could begin to force democratic changes. He is willing to work with all parties, including the hard-line Islamic party PAS (Party Islam SeMalaysia). "I accept any form of political ideology to have a space in our society, in the democratic system, to campaign for whatever they believe, so that people are free to speak and people are able to freely express themselves without fear or without being persecuted," he said.

But it is not clear how PAS could be a viable opposition partner, because it wants to create an Islamic state in the moderate, mostly Muslim nation of Malaysia.

Mr. Chua points out that the opposition is not about forming an Islamic state, but about "fighting against repression." He says he recognizes PAS has the democratic right to participate in the elections, but says the opposition will not accept any form of intolerance, be it religious or ethnic.

Whether or not PAS joins, a united opposition in the upcoming elections may send the message that there could be political alternatives and choices in Malaysian government.

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