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Malaysia government MPs fly to Taiwan as Anwar plan looms

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s ruling coalition took 41 of its lawmakers to Taiwan for a study tour on Monday, at a time when opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been trying to entice MPs to defect in his campaign to unseat the government.

Top opposition leaders were meeting on Monday to plot their campaign to oust the government by Anwar’s self-imposed deadline of September 16.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has called for a meeting of his Barisan Nasional coalition on Tuesday to try to deter any defections that could spell the end of its 50-year reign.

Anwar’s attempt to overturn a political order that has persisted since independence from Britain in 1957 has sharply raised Malaysia’s political risks and rattled foreign investors.

A ballooning fiscal deficit -- partly a result of spending measures to boost the government’s popularity after a general election debacle last March -- has also hit the ringgit currency, the stock market and bond prices.

Adding to the climate of uncertainty, Anwar is due in court on Wednesday to face a fresh sodomy charge that he says the government has trumped up to foil his political ambitions. The judge is expected to transfer the case to a higher court.

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Barisan MPs told reporters before flying off to Taiwan for an eight-day “study mission” that their trip had nothing to do with the Anwar plan.

“We are going to Taiwan to study about agriculture,” Bung Mokhtar Radin, an MP from the eastern state of Sabah, said at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. “There’s nothing political about this trip.”

He and 40 other MPs left on Monday. Another eight will follow on Tuesday. Barisan has 140 MPs against 82 for the opposition.

Lim Kit Siang, a veteran opposition leader, said government MPs were forced to flee Malaysia to ensure that they didn’t take part in September 16 “political changes”.

“The birds have flown,” he said, adding that the MPs could be subjected to 24-hour surveillance while in Taiwan with their mobile phones confiscated.

A political analyst said the Taiwan trip could provide a handy excuse for Anwar, if he failed to meet his September 16 deadline.

“Barisan is playing right into Anwar’s psy-war game,” columnist Suhaini Aznam wrote in the Star newspaper on Monday.

Anwar met leaders of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance

on Monday to discuss the takeover plan, his aides said. Anwar was due to issue a statement afterward.

Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, was sacked in 1998 during the Asian financial crisis and later jailed for six years on sodomy and corruption charges. He won a by-election last month that allowed him to re-enter parliament, putting him in position to become prime minister if the opposition alliance wins power.

Reporting by Jalil Hamid; Editing by Bill Tarrant