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Wednesday, Sept 16
Malaysia's Anwar musters grassroots support for political reform
by Eileen Ng

KAMPUNG JIJAN, Malaysia, Sept 16 (AFP) - The road ahead is long and uncertain for the thousands of villagers walking in the dark -- but even more so for the man they have come to see, ousted deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

As he criss-crosses Malaysia seeking grassroots support for political reform, the 51-year-old former finance minister is drawing unexpectedly large crowds, an unlikely assortment of farmers, housewives, businessmen, lawyers and taxi drivers.

On Tuesday night they came in droves to this small village about 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the Malaysian capital, abandoning their cars next to a darkened oil-palm estate to cover the remaining distance by foot.

As with the tens of thousands who turned out for his weekend tour of rural northern Malaysia and the southern city of Malacca, most of the crowd in Kampung Jijan is Malay, the dominant ethnic group in this multicultural nation of 21 million. But as with the weekend tour, there are some Chinese and Indians too.

''We don't know whether he's guilty or not. But if he is, we want proof,'' said Hashim Mat, a 46-year-old businessman who travelled all they way from Lumut, more than 200 kilometres (120 miles) to the north, for Tuesday night's gathering.

Although he has yet to be formally charged, Anwar has been accused of sexual impropriety, bribery, jeopardising national security, interfering with police investigations, tampering with evidence, abuse of power and sedition.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the 73-year-old leader who fired his former protege two weeks earlier, has merely cited ''moral'' grounds for the dismissal and has so far refrained from giving any full explanation.

Anwar says the allegations are part of a high-level conspiracy -- and many of the supporters and curious onlookers who come to see him are buying the theory, or at least demanding that the former prime minister be given justice.

''I'm not fighting for Anwar. I'm just demanding human rights,'' said Chong Ship Cheong, a 32-year-old ethnic Chinese businessman.

Halim Said, a 37-year-old supporter who regularly turns up for Anwar speeches despite being permanently disabled with a neck brace, agrees. ''This issue has made people political. This is massive character assassination,'' he said.

Back at Anwar's home, Rosni Che'Lah, a 43-year-old housewife, is packed into a stifling hallway with dozens of other Malay women fanning their children.

''It's worth it, I can stand it,'' she said, adding that she does not believe a single allegation against Anwar.

Nearby streets resemble a market as enterprising vendors peddle buttons, badges, car stickers, tapes of Anwar's nightly speeches and even bottles of ''reform water'' as nearby restaurants stay open late to cater to the crowd.

Haniza Nazri, an accountant who travels to Anwar's house each night with her husband and eight-year-old daughter, says the allegations have gone ''overboard'' and makes copies of leaflets to give to friends.

''It's all made up by some people at the top who don't want him there. I'm willing to give a free hand when the time comes,'' she said, denouncing the government as corrupt. ''I've made the decision and I'm willing to face the risk. This is also a Moslem cause and I believe I'll be rewarded for it.''

Anwar himself seems a changed man, with his sudden dismissal throwing him back to his radical student days when he founded an Islamic youth movement and managed to get himself jailed for almost two years campaigning for poor farmers.

The Hugo Boss suits have been replaced by traditional loose-fitting Malay tunics as keeps the audience in stitches with jokes about his alleged sexual trysts with a vast array of local and foreign women (and allegedly at least one man).

The Islamic opposition party, which controls the northeastern state of Kelantan which Anwar hopes to visit this weekend, says the protests are putting pressure on Mahathir to call a general election, possibly in November.

''The situation is getting desperate. The longer the prime minister defers, the more difficult it is for him,'' Kelantan deputy chief minister Abdul Halim Abdul Rahman was quoted as saying earlier this week.

An Asian diplomat says much depend on the battered economy. ''If Mahathir can turn around the economy, it may keep the people happy but if he fails the frustration will be reflected in the elections,'' he said.