Anwar Expects Further Crackdowns Under New Malaysian Leader

By James Hookway (The Wall Street Journal)

BANGKOK – Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on Monday again warned that the imminent rise to power of rival Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak will likely provoke a further crackdown on popular dissent in the economically struggling Southeast Asian nation.

Speaking in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in Bangkok, Mr. Anwar said: "I think we can clearly see a trend developing. Already we can see what Mr. Najib's rule will be like."

In the past week, Malaysian authorities have shut down two opposition-run newspapers, effectively preventing them from reporting on the run-up to three by-elections on April 7, which will provide a partial test of Mr. Najib's national support. On Monday, policed seized DVDs the opposition was using as part of its election campaign, and last week riot police used teargas and water cannons to prevent Mr. Anwar from addressing his supporters.

Mr. Najib will likely become premier in the next few days after current Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi hands in his resignation to Malaysia's king on April 2. Already a war of words is emerging with Mr. Anwar, arguably Mr. Najib's most potent foe after the opposition alliance broke the ruling National Front's customary two-thirds majority in elections last year.

Their deepening struggle threatens to overshadow the Malaysian government's efforts to offset its steepest recession since the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s. Some economists predict the economy could contract by as much as 4% this year.

The government this month unveiled a $16.7 billion stimulus package to be spent over the next two years.

In addition to the newspaper closures — which will be in effect for three months, according to the Malaysian government — several senior members of the ruling National Front coalition have also accused Mr. Anwar of betraying his race for supporting the scrapping of Malaysia's decades-old affirmative action policies which were introduced to ensure economic and political power for Malaysia's majority Muslim ethnic Malay population.

Mr. Anwar is a Malay, but argues that the New Economic Policy, as the affirmative action program is known, has rendered Malaysia's economy uncompetitive and will likely limit the country's recovery from the global slump.

"What I argue is that we should help all the races equally so we can take favoritism out of the equation," Mr. Anwar said. "I think we're going to hear more about racial issues if the economic situation continues."

In addition, Malaysian riot police have forcibly broken up two opposition rallies in the past several days, raising concerns among political analysts that Mr. Najib intends to steer Malaysia back to the authoritarian ways espoused by its former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled Malaysia for 22 years before stepping down in 2003.

Mr. Anwar has been distracted by legal issues after a former aide accused him of sodomy, which is a crime in Malaysia. Mr. Anwar, who was convicted and then acquitted of the same crime after challenging the government in 1998, says he is innocent and his being framed by Mr. Najib's operatives.

Mr. Najib has repeatedly said he has nothing to do with Mr. Anwar's legal troubles. On Saturday he denied that he was stamping out opposition dissent.