SINGAPORE — After months of futile attempts at various kinds of measures, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad may have hit upon the right combination to effectively deal with a formidable political opponent — the fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

His National Front (NF) coalition government has not only banned political rallies, called ceramahs, but also detained several young PAS leaders under the country’s Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows detention without trial for at least 60 days. The detainees were accused of being part of an overseas Islamic militant movement.

Mahathir’s objective against PAS is quite clear in the government’s latest moves. First, by banning political rallies, he is denying PAS valuable access to the people. The opposition party has been highly successful not only in criticizing the coalition’s policies, but also in collecting donations from the massive crowds that flock to its rallies.

By accusing the young PAS leaders, including the son of a PAS chief minister, that they form the Malaysian chapter of the Afghan Mujahideen movement, Mahathir is implicating PAS in Islamic militancy and perhaps justify any possible military crackdown of the party at the appropriate time in future.

Analysts monitoring the fierce rivalry between PAS and Mahathir’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the backbone of the NF, say that should PAS be politically destroyed, Mahathir and UMNO would escape the fate of many Asian political leaders and their parties.

If all goes well, Mahathir, the longest-serving Asian leader today, won’t go the way of former Indonesian Presidents Suharto and Abdurrahman Wahid and former Philippine Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada. Neither would UMNO have to relinquish power like Taiwan’s Kuomintang Party or be swept away from power through democratic tides as the previous regimes in Thailand.

Mahathir had in fact tried out various ways to meet the challenge of PAS, ranging from accommodation to liquidation, but those failed.

In an attempt at accommodation, Mahathir dwelt on the theme of “Malay unity” within multiracial Malaysia. He warned Malays that failure to unite would weaken their rights in relation to the large non-Muslim Chinese and Indian minorities. But PAS, at first appearing to agree with the premier, frustrated the initiative by imposing tough conditions, such as a demand that the NF federal government restore oil royalties to the PAS-controlled state government of Trengganu. For UMNO, that would have been politically impossible.

To score points among the Chinese — many of whom silently resented UMNO’s “Malay unity” program because they saw it as a move to further erode their already weakened position — PAS asserted that in view of Malaysia’s multiracial nature, the subject of unity should be expanded to cover “Malaysian unity.” But UMNO could not agree and the dialogue died a natural death.

In another apparent strategy to subdue the PAS, UMNO sought the separation of religion from politics by introducing amendments to certain laws to make PAS drop the word “Islam” from its name.

The suggestion stirred a hornet’s nest, with PAS leaders protesting vehemently that it would destroy the party’s identity. In the end, the country’s religious council ruled that PAS could retain Islam in its name provided this was not to be used in preaching hatred.

Mahathir’s recent moves to ban political rallies and detain PAS leaders under the security act appears to have hit PAS hard. Party leaders lament that the ban on political rallies has restricted their access to the people, denying their right to expose the misdeeds of the government.

They are also worried, as pointed out by PAS central committee member, Dr. Hatta Ramli, that the detentions would implicate the party as a whole in international Islamic militancy, which could justify a possible military crackdown on the party in the name of “preserving national security.”

The two measures were potentially fatal for the theocratic party, which had over the years transformed itself from a parochial religious party to a party not only with nationalist ideals and capable of attracting non-Muslims, but also one with with international links.

Today, PAS with, 27 members of Parliament, is the largest opposition party and controls two state governments — Kelantan and Trengganu. PAS has also made significant inroads into UMNO’s traditional strongholds in several states like Kedah, Perlis, Pahang, Selangor and Perak.

PAS leads an Alternative Front, a broad-based multiparty coalition along the lines of the NF. Its partners are the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, the Keadilan and the Peoples Party of Malaysia.

PAS has given definite notice that it wants to take over the federal government in the next general election which must be held by 2003, but it realizes that to be able to capture power and rule, it needs the help of the non-Muslims.

Mahathir’s moves in banning political rallies and detaining PAS leaders may have put put the brakes on the party, but the battle is far from being won.

PAS Secretary General Nasharuddin Mat Isa in a recent interview said that PAS would defy the ban on political rallies at all costs. Nasharuddin and other top PAS leaders continue to address PAS rallies in various parts of the country almost every night, where they lambaste Mahathir and the government for their cronyism, corruption and nepotism.

While dwelling on the harsh aspects of the ISA, PAS also reiterated its peaceful political struggle through democratic means and claimed that the detentions were a frameup. The government has yet to respond to PAS’ challenge because police investigations into the activities of the detained leaders are still ongoing, UMNO leaders say.

In a way, Mahathir and UMNO have been responsible for the formidable success of PAS. Since the 1969 racial riots, UMNO succeeded in neutralizing the political challenge posed by the Chinese and marginalizing them by enhancing the position of Islam which became inseparable from Malay special rights. That gave PAS a niche which it has cleverly exploited to become what it is today.

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