Malaysiakini Letter

Why Anwar Ibrahim deserves a Nobel Peace Prize

Ooi Heng, KPRU  |  Published:  |  Modified:

Former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 2016. He is currently serving his five-year jail term for his second conviction of sodomy, since Feb 10 of last year, after the Federal Court upheld the decision made by the Court of Appeal. His nomination is being backed by 10 NGOs in Malaysia so far.

Before arguing on the reasons that Anwar deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, we decided to look into the backgrounds of Aung San Suu Kyi from Myanmar, as well as Lech Walesa from Poland, who respectively received their Nobel Prize in 1991 and 1983. We believe that these two laureates are similar enough to be compared with Anwar, for they have created a great impact towards their own nations and a certain degree of impact on democratisation.

We do think that Anwar deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, as he has been wrongfully convicted for sodomy twice in his lifetime in the context of a “politically loaded case”, while sacrificing his own freedom for a non-violent struggle of democracy and fighting against injustice and corruption done by an authoritarian regime, thus making him a prisoner of conscience.

In the past, the Nobel Peace Prize has been won by several figures who were prisoners of conscience, such as Suu Kyi from Myanmar, Liu Xiaobo from China, Nelson Mandela from South Africa, and Walesa from Poland. These political dissidents have sacrificed their own freedom, in order to either fight for democracy, fight for the rights of the people, or even both.

This is the second time that Anwar is being jailed as a politician, and for both his terms Amnesty International had declared him a “prisoner of conscience”. During Anwar’s first jail term, the international body had stated that the trial proceedings “exposed a pattern of political manipulation of key state institutions including the police, public prosecutor’s office and the judiciary”.

And as for the current jail term, Amnesty International said that the charges and trial were politically motivated, calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Anwar.

Furthermore, Anwar’s health has been deteriorating in the Sungai Buloh prison, and he is facing difficulties in receiving proper medical attention.

Before this, on March 7, 2014 Court of Appeal overturned the ruling made by the High Court which acquitted him (thus reinstating this second sodomy conviction), disrupting Anwar from contesting in the Kajang by-election on March 23, 2014. Human Rights Watch criticised the court decision for being politically motivated.

Anwar could choose to leave the country just to avoid another jail term, probably seeking for political asylum. Even by doing that, Anwar could still continue leading the opposition forces from abroad, with the advanced telecommunications and internet technologies we have now.

However, Anwar has chosen not to do so. He felt that if he fled the country, he would not be making a good example in our struggles to democratise the country. Anwar has chosen to sacrifice his own freedom and probably even his own life, as his health is deteriorating in prison. For sure, it would also mean separation with his family, though his family members may occasionally visit him in prison, albeit not without problems.

Anwar and Suu Kyi

This may be comparable with Suu Kyi, who had chosen to stand with her people by turning down the Burmese military regime’s offer to join her family abroad. The condition of the offer was that she would never be able to return to Myanmar. And after 1995, her husband was denied by the military regime to visit her when she was under house arrest, and he himself died of prostate cancer in 1999.

Suu Kyi’s sacrifice had apparently paid off, as her consistent struggle for her people and democracy has finally helped her party, the National League of Democracy (NLD), achieve great electoral victory in the 2015 general election, winning 86 percent of the seats in the Assembly of the Union, which is more than 67 percent, the requirement to have their preferred candidate elected as president and first vice-president.

Though the constitution bars Suu Kyi from becoming president (as her husband and children are not citizens of Myanmar), she declared that she would hold real power in any NLD-led government. In order to amend the constitution, there must be approval from at least one military legislator.

The situation of Anwar and Suu Kyi are somewhat similar. Both of them have been under political persecution by the ruling regime while their parties achieved electoral success by winning popular support under their leadership.

Suu Kyi was under house arrest for the first time a year before her NLD won the election on May 27, 1990 with 82 percent of the parliamentary seats and 59 percent of the popular votes, but the military junta had refused to recognise the results. There she remained under house arrest until July 10, 1995, while being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

She was placed under house arrest again on Sept 23, 2000 until May 6, 2002 and once more for the third time from 2003 until Nov 13, 2010, with her term being extended a few times - including one illegal extension done on May 27, 2008.

As for Anwar, the Reformasi movement - initiated by him, his supporters and civil society after being sacked as deputy prime minister by then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1998 - eventually gave birth to Parti Keadilan Nasional, the predecessor of PKR. And this party went on to form opposition coalition Barisan Alternatif together with DAP, PAS and Parti Rakyat Malaysia.

This is the first time in history that secular DAP had an official cooperation with the hardline Islamist PAS, as there was no other party before PKR that could bring these two parties together. (However, DAP withdrew from Barisan Alternatif in 2001 due to their irreconcilable differences with PAS.)

Anwar’s Reformasi movement has created new dimension for democratisation with important legacies. It showed that a cross-ethnic alliance was possible despite the divisive racial politics practised by the ruling regime over the past several decades. It also showed that non-violent struggle of democracy was possible despite the authoritarian regime’s repressive rule against the people and injustice towards Anwar and other defenders of democracy.

Anwar played major roles in leading several demonstrations against the authoritarian regime, such as those during the Reformasi movement, as well as the Bersih rallies in 2007, 2011 and 2012 (demanding for fair and clean elections), and also the 'Blackout' rallies after the 2013 election, protesting against election frauds.

Even before Anwar entered politics, he was already an activist during his student years, and was once detained under the controversial (now abolished) Internal Security Act for his involvement in a protest against rural poverty and hunger.

He was once notable for being the president of Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim) in his pre-Umno days, and had moved up the political ranks quickly before being sacked and expelled from the party in 1998.

Anwar and Walesa

On the other hand, the Polish trade unionist Walesa had also led in several workers’ demonstrations and strikes, demanding the Communist regime for better living conditions and workers’ rights. As a result, he was once fired from his job in the Lenin Shipyard (now Gdansk Shipyard), though reinstated six years later. He was frequently detained by the Communist regime and also underwent surveillance. His actions even earned support from the Roman Catholic church and the intellectuals.

He eventually made his way into negotiations with the authorities which resulted in the Gdansk Agreement on Aug 31, 1980, which gave the workers the right to strike and to organise their own independent unions. However his movement, Solidarity, was once banned in December 1981, and later his Nobel Peace Prize was announced in October 1983.

Another negotiation he made with the authorities upon worsened economic conditions, eventually brought about the democratisation of Poland, enabling his Solidarity to win the elections in 1989 and have himself elected as president in 1990 - until his defeat in November 1995.

In the 2008 general glection, PKR won 31 parliamentary seats and became the largest opposition party in Parliament. PKR, together with DAP and PAS, formed an opposition coalition called Pakatan Rakyat. Back then this alliance had 81 seats combined, breaking BN’s long-standing two-thirds majority in the Parliament. In the GE13, Pakatan Rakyat obtained 50.9 percent of the popular votes (while BN had 47.4 percent), but was only able to win 89 out of the 222 seats in the Parliament (thus BN won 133).

As an opposition leader, Anwar has been critical of the BN government’s distorted policies, notably his problematisation of the New Economic Policy (NEP). He also called for the need of democratic accountability, an independent judiciary and free media, in order to combat corruption.

Though Anwar failed to get BN parliamentarians to defect to his side on Sept 16, 2008, this nonetheless made the entire nation awaken and began to appreciate the importance of Sept 16, for it was the date of the formation of Malaysia in 1963. Since then, from 2009 onwards, Sept 16 became a public holiday for the entire country, as it was previously made a public holiday only for Sabah and Sarawak.

And both sides of the political divide began to realise the need to address the rights of Sabah and Sarawak, as many people from these states felt that their rights and interests have been compromised by the federal government based in the peninsula, up to the extent that the 1963 Malaysia Agreement is being violated.

Anwar made a revolutionary impact towards Malaysian politics when he formed the Malay-dominated multiracial party PKR, while previously there was no similar party that could achieve such success. PKR’s racial composition notably matches the national racial composition the closest, as compared with other major political parties in Malaysia, therefore making it the “most multiracial” party here.

Before the formation of PKR, the Malays were mostly divided into Umno and PAS for several decades, with a mere few years of Semangat 46 (S46), a splinter party of Umno. Umno and S46 are restricted to bumiputera, while PAS is restricted to Muslims.

Before PKR, there was never a Malay-dominated multiracial party that could achieve such great electoral success. Other multiracial parties - like DAP and Gerakan - are dominated by the Chinese and other ethnic minorities. The emergence of PKR has practically provided a good political platform for the moderate Malays, for Umno has been based on Malay nationalism, while PAS has been based on Islamism.

PKR has filled the political gap between Umno and PAS, which effectively provided an alternative voice apart from Umno and PAS, and bring the entire nation into attention on democratisation, good governance and cross-cultural issues such as corruption, abuse of power, rise of living costs, and freedom of speech.

With PKR under Anwar’s leadership, there were chances for DAP and PAS to work together as one alliance against BN, although the ideologies of DAP and PAS seemed irreconcilable. They formed a formidable force against the authoritarian regime by uniting opposition forces of difference races and ethnicities, and challenge the racist policies of the oppressive regime.

And it is evident that without Anwar, DAP and PAS would eventually break apart over their own differences, which - other than what happened in Barisan Alternatif in 2001 - was seen by the Pakatan Rakyat split in 2015, a few months after Anwar’s imprisonment. PKR and DAP, together with Parti Amanah Negara, a splinter party of PAS, later formed a new opposition coalition called “Pakatan Harapan” .

This is unlike Suu Kyi who failed (or perhaps unwilling) to defend the basic human rights of Rohingyas who have been persecuted by the Myanmar government. Her NLD even refused to send Muslim candidates up for election. She had bowed down to the anti-Rohingya or anti-Muslim sentiments in her country.

This somehow shows that Anwar is better than Suu Kyi, the former having refused to bow down to racist sentiments among the Malay nationalists, but rather strive for a middle path and bring people from different races and religions together.

Based on the political success and sacrifices done by Anwar, we do think that he is comparable with at least some of the laureates, and therefore deserves the Nobel Prize. After all, there were also lesser figures who have won as well, such as Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan back in 2014. Additionally, some cases like that of Barack Obama who won in 2009 - less than a year after becoming the president of the United States - had been quite controversial.

If they could get the Nobel Prize, why not Anwar, who has been tirelessly fighting for democracy - himself an indefatigable defender of human dignity and against injustice - even from prison? Now that the international community’s appeal for releasing him is growing, just as what they did for Suu Kyi.

Based on the backgrounds of Anwar, Suu Kyi, and Walesa, we should be able to notice that these three had created a massive impact onto the politics of democracy and reform of their respective countries.

Under the leadership of Anwar and Suu Kyi, their respective political forces managed to win popular support in their respective countries. As for Walesa, being a trade unionist, his leadership of the workers’ movements successfully pressured the Communist regime of Poland to bow down to their demands and gave more rights to the workers, and eventually democratising the country upon the end of the Cold War.

Anwar's involvement in political activities and social movements have been characterised by a determination to solve his country's problems of democracy through negotiation and cooperation - without resorting to violence. We believe his own sacrificing of freedom and continuing struggle to seek non-violent political change in the years ahead will eventually democratise the country.

OOI HENG is executive director of the think-tank Political Studies for Change (KPRU).

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