Nobel Peace Prize 2016 and Anwar Ibrahim, the prisoner of conscience
Former Leader of the Opposition of Malaysian Parliament, Dato’ Seri 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 10 February 2015, after the Federal Court upheld the decision made by the Court of Appeal. His nomination is being backed by 10 non-governmental organisations (NGO) in Malaysia so far.
Before arguing on the reasons Anwar Ibrahim deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, we decided to look into the background of Aung San Suu Kyi from Myanmar/Burma, as well as Lech Wałęsa from Poland, who respectively received their Prize in 1991 and 1983. We believed that these two Laureates are similar enough to be compared with Anwar Ibrahim, for they have created a great impact towards their own nations and a certain degree of impact on democratisation.
We do think that Anwar Ibrahim deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, as he is wrongfully convicted for sodomy twice in his lifetime, in the context of a “politically loaded case”, while sacrificing his own freedom for non-violent struggle of democracy, and fighting against injustice and corruption done by an authoritarian regime, 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 Aung San Suu Kyi from Myanmar, Liu Xiaobo from China, Nelson Mandela from South Africa, and Lech Wałęsa from Poland. These political dissidents have sacrificed their own freedom, in order to, either fight for democracy, or fight for the rights of the people, or even both.
This is the second time Anwar Ibrahim is being jailed as a politician, and for both of the jail terms the Amnesty International had declared him a “prisoner of conscience”. During Anwar’s first jail term, Amnesty International 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. They called for immediate and unconditional release of Anwar Ibrahim. Furthermore, Anwar’s health has been deteriorating in Sungai Buloh Prison, and he is facing difficulties in receiving proper medical attention.
Before this, on 7 March 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 23 March 2014. Human Rights Watch criticized 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 Ibrahim and Aung San Suu Kyi
This may be comparable with Aung San 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, she would never be able to return to Myanmar. And after 1995 her husband was denied by the military regime to visit her, who was under house arrest, and he himself died of prostate cancer in 1999. Aung San Suu Kyi’s sacrifice has apparently paid off, as her consistent struggle for her people and democracy has finally helped her party, National League for Democracy (NLD), achieve great electoral victory in the 2015 General Election, winning 86% of the seats in the Assembly of the Union, which is more than 67%, the requirement to have their preferred candidate elected as President and First Vice President. Though the constitution bars Aung San 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 Ibrahim and Aung San 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. Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest for the first time a year before her NLD won the election on 27 May 1990 with 82% of the parliamentary seats and 59% of the popular votes, but the military junta refused to recognise the results. And she remained under house arrest until 10 July 1995. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. And she was placed under house arrest again on 23 September 2000 until 6 May 2002. And she was placed under house arrest for the third time from 2003 until 13 November 2010, being extended a few times, including one illegal extension done on 27 May 2008.
As for Anwar Ibrahim – the Reformasi movement initiated by him, his supporters and civil society after being sacked as Deputy Prime Minister by then-Prime Minister Dato’ Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1998 – eventually gave birth to Parti Keadilan Nasional, the predecessor of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (KEADILAN). And this party went on forming a new opposition coalition, Barisan Alternatif, together with Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM). This is the first time in history secular DAP had an official cooperation with the hardline Islamist PAS, as there was no other party before KEADILAN 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 Ibrahim 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 (ISA) 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) before joining the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant component party of BN, and moved up the political ranks quickly, before being sacked and expelled from the party in 1998.
Anwar Ibrahim and Lech Wałęsa
On the other hand, the Polish trade unionist Lech Wałęsa 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 Gdańsk Shipyard), though reinstated 6 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 Gdańsk Agreement on 31 August 1980, which gave the workers the right to strike and to organize 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 to an end of the authoritarian rule and democratized Poland, enabling his Solidarity to win election in 1989 and have himself elected as President in 1990, until his defeat in November 1995.
In the 2008 General Election, KEADILAN won 31 Parliamentary seats and became the largest opposition party in the Parliament. KEADILAN, together with DAP and PAS, formed a new opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat. Back then this alliance had 81 seats in combined, breaking BN’s long-standing two-thirds majority in the Parliament. In the 13th General Election, Pakatan Rakyat obtained 50.9% of the popular votes (while BN had 47.4%) but was only able to win 89 out of the 222 seats in the Parliament (thus BN won 133).
As an opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim 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 16 September 2008, this nonetheless made the entire nation awaken and began to appreciate the importance of the date 16 September, for it was the date of the formation of Malaysia in 1963 (between Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore). Since then, from 2009 onwards, 16 September, being “Malaysia Day”, became a public holiday for the entire country, as it was previously a public holiday only for Sabah and Sarawak. And politicians from both sides of the political divide began to realise the need to address the rights of Sabah and Sarawak (together called “East Malaysia”), as many people from these two states felt that their rights and interests have been compromised by the federal government based in West Malaysia, up to the extent that the 1963 Malaysia Agreement, an international treaty, is being violated.
Anwar Ibrahim made a revolutionary impact towards Malaysian politics, as he formed the Malay-dominated multiracial party KEADILAN, while previously there was no similar party that could achieve such success. KEADILAN is a party which its racial composition 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 KEADILAN, 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 KEADILAN, there was never a Malay-dominated multiracial party that could achieve such great electoral success. Other multiracial parties such as DAP and Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (a component party of BN) are dominated by Chinese and other ethnic minorities. The emergence of KEADILAN 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. KEADILAN has practically filled a political gap between UMNO and PAS, which effectively provided an alternative voice apart from the Malay nationalist and Islamist sentiments by UMNO and PAS, and bring the entire nation into attention on democratisation and good governance and cross-cultural issues such as corruption or abuse of power, rising of living cost, and freedom of speech.
With KEADILAN under Anwar’s leadership, there were chances for DAP and PAS to work together as one alliance against BN, though the ideologies of secular DAP and hardline Islamist PAS seem 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, Pakatan Rakyat has broken apart in 2015, a few months after the imprisonment of Anwar Ibrahim. (Later, KEADILAN and DAP, together with Parti Amanah Negara, a splinter party of PAS, formed a new opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan)
This is unlike Aung San Suu Kyi who failed (or perhaps unwilling) to defend to basic human rights of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, who have been persecuted by the government. Her NLD even refused to send Muslim candidates for election. She bowed down to the anti-Rohingya or anti-Muslim sentiments in her country. This somehow shows that Anwar Ibrahim is better than Aung San Suu Kyi, who refuses to bow down to the racist sentiments among Malay nationalists, but rather strive for a middle path and bring the people from different races and religions together.
Based on the political success and sacrifices done by Anwar Ibrahim, we do think that he is comparable with at least some of the Nobel Peace Laureates, therefore deserves the Nobel Prize. After all, there were also lesser figures who have won the Prize as well, such as Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan who won in 2014. Additionally, some cases were quite controversial as well, such as Barack Obama who won in 2009 – less than a year being the President of the United States – had been quite controversial.
If they could get the 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 Aung San Suu Kyi.
Based on the background of Anwar Ibrahim, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Lech Wałęsa, we should be able to notice that these three of them created a massive impact onto the politics of democracy and reform of their respective countries.
Under the leadership of Anwar Ibrahim and Aung San Suu Kyi, their respective political forces managed to win popular support in their respective countries. As for Lech Wałęsa, 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 Ibrahim’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.
Political Studies for Change (Kajian Politik untuk Perubahan, KPRU)
A parliamentary think tank
15 Jan 2016