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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

GETTING HOTTER

While Kuala Lumpur braces for the beginning of Anwar Ibrahim's trial, the mood in the capital is clouded by a street protest that turned ugly. Each side blames the other for fueling tensions

By Sangwon Suh and Arjuna Ranawana / Kuala Lumpur


Measures A new budget is welcomed by Malaysian businesses

FOLLOWERS OF ANWAR IBRAHIM may have seen it as a show of support for the former deputy prime minister. Government leaders might have viewed it as the handiwork of rabble-rousing fringe elements trying to destabilize the country. To many on the ground, though, it was something else: outrage against what they perceived was the unwarranted use of force by police.

The dramatic events of Oct. 24 began with another reformasi demonstration along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, a major thoroughfare running through Kuala Lumpur's downtown shopping district. The reform movement that Anwar launched shortly after he was sacked had already shown itself to have remarkable staying power. Following Anwar's arrest on Sept. 20, supporters and sympathizers took to the streets week after week, apparently undeterred by baton-wielding riot police who were waiting each time. Events that Saturday, however, would be remembered less for the protesters' resilience than for the violence.

That afternoon, police were once again out in force in the area around Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman; riot policemen from the Federal Reserve Unit were backed up by members of the General Operations Force, a division originally formed to fight communist guerrillas in jungle terrain. Unarmed policemen tried to keep shoppers and would-be protesters from congregating in the main gathering area outside the Sogo supermarket, while vans from the Information Department went up and down the street, announcing through loudspeakers that any assembly of more than three people was illegal and violators would be subject to arrest and a fine of up to 2,000 ringgit (about $526).

The police presence failed to deter some 2,000 demonstrators from gathering and chanting "reformasi." After issuing a warning, the police fired blasts of water mixed with a tear-gas-like irritant (the local press calls it "noxious water"). The protesters dispersed; some ran into back streets, others into the nearby Pertama high-rise shopping complex, where they scattered color portraits of Anwar. The police employed a tactic they had been using on such occasions: plainclothes officers mingled with bystanders and pounced on anyone perceived to be a reformasi agitator. A young man carrying handbills was severely beaten in front of the crowds. A middle-aged woman was wrestled to the ground and dragged away struggling as bystanders roared their disapproval of the police action. Her husband came running, his arms laden with groceries, and shouted: "Are you trying to kill my woman?" A man dressed in a tunic favored by Muslim clerics appealed to the police and the woman was freed.

As the skirmishes were petering out, a whispered message went around: the protests would continue at Kampung Baru, farther up the road. So far, despite the heavy-handed use of force by police, there had been no retaliatory action by protesters. That, however, was about to change.

Kampung Baru is the oldest Malay settlement in Kuala Lumpur. The streets are narrow and the traditional Malay-style houses provide a direct contrast with the modern high-rise apartment blocks in adjacent neighborhoods. The enclave is the heartland of activism - it is here that Anwar centered his agitations during his days as a student leader. It is also where the notorious 1969 race riots began.

Around 7:30 p.m., after evening prayers, a crowd began to gather in the premises of the Kampung Baru mosque and to chant slogans. When mosque leaders asked them to leave, they flocked into the streets. How exactly the proceedings degenerated into violence is still unclear. The authorities claim a traffic policeman was attacked outside the mosque. Local residents told Asiaweek that plainclothes officers in the crowd had tried to grab some protesters and the scene quickly became ugly.

As police charged in with batons amid tear-gas shots and bursts from water cannons, the protesters did what they had not done in previous encounters: they fought back. They pelted police with stones and pieces of wood from torn-up fences; some brought out crude Molotov cocktails - kerosene-filled plastic bottles with newspaper wicks. A police patrol car had its windows smashed. In one lane, protesters piled up garbage and an old tire and set the heap alight. "The sight of red-helmeted riot policemen seemed to inflame the youths," says one resident.

The police themselves showed little restraint, unlike in some previous confrontations. They demolished a food stall while in pursuit of some demonstrators. Some eyewitnesses claim a woman with a baby was beaten up; residents who went to her rescue were also said to have been thrashed and bundled into a police van.

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3


BUDGETARY MEASURES

l Moves to reflate the economy and turn recession into growth by increasing government spending on infrastructure. Welcomed by most, particularly the business community. This will lead to an overall deficit of about $4.36 billion for the next calendar year, with the government carrying forward another deficit of $2.52 billion from this year. Analysts wonder where the money will come from, but state planners say savings rates are high enough.

l Efforts to merge banks and financial institutions to strengthen the financial system, which is close to collapse because of defaulting creditors. More caution here, because by saving some chronically bad banks, the government may be helping politically well-connected businessmen.

l Changes to the taxation structure whereby Malaysians will not have to pay for last year's incomes. As it is, most big companies lost money last year, and tax revenues would have been marginal anyway. The government hopes there will be a turnaround in 1999, and will begin collecting again in 2000. Plenty of confusion over these measures; very little has been clarified. But it is a popular idea, as are the tax breaks for the trade and tourism sectors.


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