KUALA LUMPUR: The intense global scrutiny brought upon Malaysia’s government over the fate of flight MH370 has tossed a wild card into its controversial efforts to send opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim back to jail.
Just hours before the Malaysia Airlines plane disappeared on March 8, a court overturned Anwar’s 2012 acquittal on sodomy charges he says are false and part of a long-running government attempt to wreck his political career.
Sentenced to five years in jail, Anwar, free on appeal, would be expelled from parliament if the conviction holds—a severe blow for a fractious opposition that has enjoyed unprecedented success by uniting around his star power.
But Anwar feels the negative global attention from the MH370 tragedy could force the government to think twice.
“[MH370] certainly will have a bearing,” said Anwar, 66, when asked by Agence France-Presse whether concern over international reaction to his jailing could make his political foes pause.
“The entire radar is on Malaysia—that it is opaque, semi-authoritarian, no transparency, no accountability,” he added.
Fears of backlash
Unaccustomed to answering for itself at home, Malaysia’s gov–ernment has faced a barrage of international criticism for the unexplained loss of the plane with 239 people aboard, and a stumbling response.
Anwar’s opposition said the saga has exposed institutional decay and incompetence in a government dominated since 1957 by the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which is widely accused of rampant cronyism and corruption.
A former deputy premier with UMNO, Anwar has cultivated strong friendships in Washington, where he is lauded for his calls for reform, and the US State Department has questioned the March 7 ruling against him.
However, President Barack Obama does not plan to see Anwar when he is in Kuala Lumpur next week, though US officials have not ruled out a lower-level meeting. It was not clear whether Obama would raise Anwar’s case with Malaysia’s government.
“Jailing Anwar will be a big mistake, as it will galvanize people around his struggle. The last time they did that we saw the biggest protests ever,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of Malaysian public policy think-tank IDEAS.
Anwar was sensationally ousted from the government in 1998 after losing a power struggle, and his subsequent jailing for six years on sodomy and corruption charges was widely considered politically motivated.
The biggest protests in Malaysia’s history resulted, and Anwar emerged as a formidable opposition campaigner after the sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004.
Jailing Anwar would heap further pressure on the government and make it “a laughing stock,” Wan Saiful said.
Current Prime Minister Najib Razak, a relative moderate, has consistently sought international favor, but is constrained by UMNO conservatives who deeply fear Anwar and the political threat he poses.
In elections last year, the opposition won a majority of Malaysia’s popular vote for the first time, though UMNO’s coalition clung to control of parliament.