Ousted No. 2 Tours Malaysia to Cheers -- Thousands Defy Law to Hear Him
By Thomas Fuller (International Herald Tribune)
Anwar Ibrahim, who until two weeks ago was the country's second most powerful politician, clearly broke that law over the weekend, crisscrossing the country and greeting tens of thousands of supporters in what was his first trip outside the capital since being dismissed as deputy prime minister earlier this month.
''I think this is the beginning of something,'' said Wahab Long, a businessman who came to see Mr. Anwar speak in his hometown of Cerok Tok Kun, one of three stops on the former deputy prime minister's itinerary. ''This is the beginning of not being afraid.''
Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, who dismissed Mr. Anwar two weeks ago, has said that Mr. Anwar is courting arrest by giving nightly speeches to his supporters.
''If he disrupts public order, we will take action,'' Mr. Mahathir said Saturday.
That did not seem to hold back the crowds over the weekend. At Mr. Anwar's second stop on Saturday - a mosque and religious school in the northwest state of Kedah - mosque officials estimated the crowd at 60,000 to 80,000 people.
Mr. Anwar was hoarse and looked exhausted leaving the rally in the early hours of Sunday morning.
''They said I only have support in the urban quarters,'' he said, walking down the steps of the mosque. ''This is a pure rural setting, and you can see the enthusiasm.''
The turnout was all the more surprising because it took place in Mahathir territory: the mosque is just a few kilometers from the birthplace and constituency of the prime minister.
Thousands of supporters converged by car and motorcycle on the obscure religious school situated on a dark and narrow road far from any major town. Without any significant police presence or organization, supporters got stuck in heavy traffic and abandoned their cars in the middle of the road.
Guided often only by starlight, a crowd of thousands of people walked 8 kilometers (5 miles) in the dark, weaving to avoid the abandoned cars and motor scooters.
It was a somewhat surreal pilgrimage that had Mr. Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah, stumbling for words to describe it.
''I think this phenomenon is unseen before in Malaysia,'' she said, rolling down the window of car before leaving the mosque.
Mr. Amir, 26, a rice farmer from a nearby village, said most of the people he knows support Mr. Anwar. ''Anwar has more credibility than Mahathir because of his knowledge of Islam,'' he said.
Until he was fired, Mr. Anwar was Mr. Mahathir's anointed successor. His sudden ouster two weeks ago on the grounds of ''bad morals,'' left Mr. Mahathir, 73, without a clear successor.
Mr. Anwar is currently under investigation for a series of crimes including sedition and treason.
Many people who came to listen to Mr. Anwar speak said they could not believe that a man who was deputy prime minister of the country one day could all of a sudden be under investigation for so many allegations.
''If you accuse someone you must have strong evidence,'' said a civil servant attending the rally. ''In the coffee shops people say this is nonsense.'' Mr. Mahathir said Saturday that Malaysians would understand why Mr. Anwar was dismissed as soon as Mr. Anwar's case is heard in court. ''A lot more things will be exposed,'' he said.