Queen caught in Malaysia chaos

Kuala Lumpur crisis: Royal visit is overshadowed by rioting in capital after detention of Mahathir's former deputy
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The Independent Online
EVERYONE INSISTED that it was nothing personal. "We don't mind the Queen, she is welcome in Malaysia," said a bearded man named Aziz. "You have to understand, it wasn't really aimed at her."

But there was no denying the fact that yesterday morning, as Her Majesty's motorcade glided past the Kuala Lumpur sessions and magistrates court, angry boos were directed at the royal Bentley.

Those close enough to see said the Queen appeared to have mistaken the sentiments of the crowd and attempted a royal wave through the bullet- proof glass. "It was not about the Queen," said Aziz again. "But she is being used by [the Prime Minister] Mahathir. He wants to take glory and credit from her coming here, and it is Mahathir that we hate."

Perhaps all royal tours have a touch of the bizarre but the state visit to Malaysia has surely been stranger than most - a fearful ordeal for the organising courtiers and diplomats. Ever since the royal plane touched down last Sunday, months of carefully laid plans have been subjected to a barrage of political protests.

Two hours after her arrival on Sunday, as the Queen attended a church service at Kuala Lumpur's Anglican cathedral, 40,000 demonstrators were round the corner baying for the resignation of Mahathir Mohamad.

As she rested at the state guest house, police armed with M-16s were on patrol a few hundred yards away, guarding the residence of Mr Mahathir where a few thousand protesters were tear-gassed later in the evening.

Perhaps she relaxed with a glance at the Malaysian papers, usually a reliable soporific with their adulatory coverage of "Mr M's" utterances and their distaste for any dissenting views. But the front page of the New Sunday Times was hardly designed to soothe. "We were sodomised," read the headline above a graphic account of a virtual show trial the day before, in which two men were imprisoned for gross indecency allegedly perpetrated by Mr Mahathir's enemy, Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister.

Yesterday, after a welcoming ceremony, the royal party drove past the court where supporters of Mr Anwar were waiting for him to appear following his arrest the night before. The crowd was large, expectant and angry - angry with Mr Mahathir and with the uncompromising, authoritarian and increasingly brutal political establishment he represents.

Mr Anwar never arrived, and the royal visitors were the closest thing to a symbol of the establishment to pass by. They were unlucky, and Mr Aziz was not just being polite. The turmoil in Malaysia these days is not about the Queen.

In any case, the crowd soon had more to be angry about. By 10.30am it had grown to about 5,000 strong, and the roads in Kuala Lumpur's shopping and commercial district, were hopelessly blocked. A dozen red riot control vehicles trundled out (several of them of British manufacture) including an armoured water-cannon with two automated turrets, like twin daleks, which scanned the crowd and then opened fire.

The spray that gushed forth looks harmless until you find yourself underneath it. It is not water, but a solution of noxious fluid that stings the eyes, chokes the throat and lingers in the air for half-an-hour afterwards.

Then the Special Branch arrived, stocky brutes in jeans and motorbike helmets with sinister bulges in their waistbands. After going into a huddle they ran at the jeering demonstrators, concentrating on a few carefully chosen individuals who were dragged away handcuffed into a big red chicken- wire covered bus. As one young man - overpowered by seven or eight police - was being handcuffed, a burly man loped over from the other side of the street and delivered a heavy kick.

Forty people suffered a similar fate, although in four hours of watching the demonstrators I saw no illegal acts perpetrated, apart from an unwillingness to disperse when they were told.

No shops were trashed, no fires were started, and no stones or bottles were thrown. One man was dragged away for waving a large Malaysian flag. The protesters chanted "Reform" and "Down with Mahathir", but they also sang patriotic songs. Nothing bugs a man like Mr Mahathir more than having the moral carpet pulled from under his feet.

I saw a dozen people being arrested or hauled away including an slender young Chinese woman in an elegant black dress.

The Queen did not see that. She was on the other side of town, enjoying what is called a "courtesy call" from the Malaysian Prime Minister. The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, the man behind Labour's ethical foreign policy, met Mr Mahathir too, although his spokesman declined to say whether he had expressed any concern about the day's events.

Last night, the Queen and Mr Cook joined the Prime Minister at the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. Elsewhere, six people - including Mr Anwar - were being held under the Internal Security Act.