With demonisation being a popular theme on New Mandala, it was interesting to see the return of Anwar Ibrahim to Malaysia’s Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives). Anwar’s victory in a recent by-election represents, for many, a victory for liberal democratic values and a defeat of the systems that promote crony justice.

As crony justice is also a topical issue elsewhere in Southeast Asia, I thought it made sense to use Anwar Ibrahim’s return as a basis for discussing the fate of Thai elites and Thaksin Shinawatra. Obviously, there are differences between Thaksin and Ibrahim and it would be unhelpful to compare them too closely. However, both men do share some common ground as they were both deposed through a process orchestrated by competitor elites. This has been at the heart of their respective character assassinations.

Anwar Ibrahim was charged with corruption in 1999 and sodomy in 2000. Anwar was, of course, released in 2004, with two of three Federal Court of Malaysia judges acquitting him citing inconsistencies in evidence relating to the charge of sodomy. Before Anwar’s “corrupt and devious behaviour” came to prominence in 1998, he had begun to promote transparent auditing that would have adversely affected people within his own party, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO).

Thaksin Shinawatra has yet to be charged much to the chagrin of many yellow shirts. However, his wife Potjaman was sentenced to three years imprisonment for tax evasion in July 2008. The Shinawatras then fled to London after being allowed to attend the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, and are seeking political asylum. Thaksin blamed elites within Thailand for his quick exit. He said, “There is a continuation of dictatorship managing Thai politics … which is followed by interference in the justice system. These are my political enemies. They do not care about the rule of law, facts or internationally recognised due process.”

Couldn’t the same have been said for Anwar Ibrahim’s trials and tribulations at the hands of an UMNO backed judiciary in the late nineties? Would Anwar Ibrahim have fled to Athens if he had the opportunity? (He didn’t on his release in 2004, and the Olympics were there then!) If it weren’t for Potjaman, could Thaksin have tried his luck in the courts only later to emerge virtuous and a shining light for the democracy he claims to value?

Anwar Ibrahim has returned to Malaysian politics and does so at a time when competitor elites in Malaysia are on the back foot. What does the current situation say about elites in Thailand? Will they ever loosen their grip? If so, without a symbol of injustice (which Thaksin could have been), how?