Malaysia's Independence Day ceremonies are clouded by politics

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Malaysia celebrated 51 years of independence Sunday, wracked by economic woes and political uncertainty over fears that a resurgent opposition could topple a government that has ruled since 1957 when British colonial rule ended.

Spectacular fireworks lit the skies at midnight.

A colourful parade with dances by Malaysia's three main ethnic groups - majority Malays and minority Chinese and Indians - passed through the historic Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square.

"The world ... is impressed with Malaysia because not many countries with a multiracial population exist with tolerance, peace and harmony," Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said in a speech.

It also touched on his government's efforts to fight inflation that has reached a record 8.5 per cent.

Abdullah also referred indirectly to the threat by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's plans to topple the government with parliamentary defections.

"A united people is a strong national bulwark against any threat, whether from within or outside the country," Abdullah said.

While a slowing economy, dwindling investments, spiralling inflation and a lacklustre stock market are major concerns for the country, the nation's attention has been riveted this year by the political fireworks surrounding the 61-year-old Anwar.

In June, a stunned nation heard of an accusation by a young male aide who claimed he was sodomized by Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who was convicted and jailed on the same charge about a decade ago.

His conviction was overturned later.

Anwar says he was a victim of a political conspiracy both times. Sodomy, even between consenting adults, is a crime in Malaysia and is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Anwar's humiliation came as he mounted a serious challenge to the government, accusing it of corruption and subverting the civil service, the judiciary and the police.

He also says minorities are treated unfairly while the majority Malays are given special privileges. The government denies it's doing anything wrong.

"We see the constitution being weakened, democracy trampled on and national institution turned into tools of the ruling power," Anwar said in a statement.

"It is time for Malaysians to rediscover the real meaning of freedom in the country."

Anwar's three-party coalition made spectacular gains in the March 8 general elections, increasing its strength from 19 to 82 seats in the 222-member Parliament.

Abdullah's National Front returned to power with a simple majority of 140 seats, down from its traditional two-thirds majority.

Anwar says he's now close to getting at least 30 National Front lawmakers to defect so that he can form a new government and become the next prime minister.

It is not clear if Anwar can carry out the threat by his self-imposed deadline of Sept. 16, but it has evidently unnerved the government.

In an unprecedented step, Abdullah injected politics into his economic speech to unveil the annual budget on Friday.

After announcing that the economy is expected to expand by 5.7 per cent in 2008, slowing from 6.3 per cent growth in 2007, Abdullah warned against anyone destabilizing his National Front coalition.

"Efforts by certain parties to destabilize the country by attempting to seize power through illegitimate means, and without the mandate of the people, must be rejected," he said.

"We cannot allow uncertainties to continue, as this will adversely affect foreign investment, economic sentiment and the capital markets. I will not allow these disturbances to continue," he said.

The National Front is a coalition of 13 parties led by Abdullah's United Malays National Organization.

By Vijay Joshi, The Associated Press
source: The Canadian Press

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