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From the Manila Bulletin, April 30, 1999

Azizah in Manila: So what's the problem?

By Senator Blas F. Ople

THE current visit to Manila of the wife of Anwar Ibrahim, Mrs. Azizah Ismail, has caused deep concern in Malaysia's ruling circles.

The concern arises from the fact that Mrs. Anwar Ibrahim is now the leader of a new political party, the Parti Keadilan Nasional or National Justice Party, which is challenging the political hegemony of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The foreign office in Kuala Lumpur was expected to summon the Philippine Ambassador Chito Brillantes to protest the visit as an act of interference in Malaysia's internal affairs and a violation of the ASEAN code of silence concerning the state of affairs in each member country.

Actually most of this fear rests on contagion theory. The Philippines is a free and democratic country priding itself in the freedom of speech and of the press, freedoms that are routinely suppressed in Malaysia. The fact that Mrs. Azizah is here as the guest of former President Corazon Aquino can only aggravate these concerns. That endows the visit with a rich and powerful symbolism indeed.

Anwar himself looks to a future Southeast Asia in which countries help each other advance the cause of human liberties and strive towards a community of aims in freedom and prosperity. That is the very essence of his widely acclaimed book, Asian Renaissance, in which the libertarian, humanist spirit of Jose Rizal, Mohandas Ghandi, Mohamed Iqbal and Sun Yat Sen waxes strong.

Anwar rejects the notion that the values of democracy should be a monopoly of the West, and affirms his strong belief that these are universal values. This idea contrasts with that of Mahathir, who believes that freedom and human rights are a Western trick to dominate the peoples of the Third World. Although himself a devout Muslim -- and an icon of Malaysia -- Anwar sees the world's great religions as a potential cementing bond for diverse nations in a democratic world.

Little wonder that it was Anwar who initiated and organized the first international conference on Jose Rizal in 1997 in Kuala Lumpur. Some of the world's finest scholars in Philippine studies converged in KL under Malaysian sponsorship to commemorate and honour the memory of Rizal as a grand feature of the Philippine centennial celebration.

Very recently, in a personal letter to me, Anwar expressed his thanks to the Senate and the Philippine Congress for their indispensable support in his hour of travail in Malaysia.

"The expression of support had prevented more abuses by the regime and has had a profound impact on the thinking of Malaysians, many of whom now look to their Filipino brothers and sisters for inspiration in their struggle for justice and freedom," he said.

No, the visit of Anwar's wife need not strain Philippine-Malaysian relationship. It is not our fault, or his, that our visions of the future of Southeast Asia, free, democratic and united have found such a touching convergence. This convergence is now embodied in the frail but tough lady who, with her husband as a prisoner of conscience in Kuala Lumpur, is embarked on her own lonely quest for freedom and human compassion in Malaysia.

We also know that Anwar is on the right side of history, and Mahathir on the wrong side.

We in the Senate say to Azizah Ismail, or Mrs. Anwar Ibrahim, "You are not alone, Azizah. Welcome once again to Manila, where your husband Anwar Ibrahim and the cause he and you represent enjoy the warm admiration and support of the Filipino people."

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