Anti-government protesters mounted three demonstrations in the capital in less than 24 hours, highlighting the depth of discontent with Dr Mahathir's rule and his opponents' determination to defy a police ban on public gatherings.
Police fired tear gas and water cannon yesterday to break up a demonstration by about 200 supporters of Malaysia's sacked finance minister, Anwar Ibrahim, calling on Dr Mahathir to resign.
The 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum (Apec) range from the United States, Japan and Russia to Vietnam, Peru and Papua New Guinea. Apec's goal is the establishment of free trade throughout the region by 2020.
The group's star performer, President Bill Clinton, cancelled his attendance over the weekend to deal with the crisis over Iraq, and called back from Kuala Lumpur his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.
The Indonesian president, B.J. Habibie, plans to attend, although on Friday Indonesian troops shot dead more than a dozen people in the centre of Jakarta. The following day, mobs destroyed shops and banks and bandits held up cars on the road to the airport. Yesterday, there were persistent rumours that Dr Habibie faces a possible military coup.
Dr Mahathir, the summit's host, is facing a political crisis over the sacking of his former deputy, Mr Anwar, who is standing trial for alleged corruption and sex crimes, charges which are widely suspected of being trumped up.
His treatment by Dr Mahathir, and a beating up at the hands of the police, has provoked rage at home and abroad.
Ms Albright met Mr Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah. She also met Malaysia's trade minister, Rafidah Aziz. The pair sparred with each other at a news conference. Ms Albright said that Washington was concerned about Mr Anwar's chances getting a fair trial. Mr Rafidah shot back: "Maybe if I go to the States, I would like to meet Ken Starr," referring to the special prosecutor investigating President Clinton. "But he is not in prison," Ms Albright snapped.
Apec's principal goal is free trade but Dr Mahathir has defied Western economic orthodoxy by introducing currency controls. Having established himself as an Apec undesirable, Dr Mahathir is in no position to do what summit hosts need to do - nudge the participants into reaching an agreement. But Apec leaders will have a much simpler ambition this week: to get through their meeting without any major diplomatic squabbles, large scale riots or coups d'etat.Reuse content