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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

'Communism Is Not Dead'

The planning minister on the peril of inequity


THERE ARE VARIOUS INTERPRETATIONS of what fueled the riots that convulsed Jakarta in July. The government-inspired occupation of the headquarters of the Democratic Party of Indonesia certainly touched off the orgy of looting and beatings. But the sheer ferocity of the riots, which left up to five dead and 149 hurt, has been attributed to people's desire for social equity -- or envy of the rich.

Ever since, the government has been sounding hoary warnings about "communists" who are apparently eager to exploit the widening income gap between haves and have-nots. "Discontent with disparity and injustice is normal," said President Suharto at the Armed Forces Day parade. "But dissent can be negative if it gives rise to jealousy and hatred."

Critics say the government should take steps to redress income disparities rather than issue warnings about its perils. Asiaweek Senior Correspondent Keith Loveard discussed the issues with National Planning Minister Ginandjar Kartasasmita. Excerpts:

People involved in the riots said they wanted to eat hamburgers like the rich. Isn't this a matter not of poverty but of the distribution of wealth?

Inequity is a much larger threat. A person with no means of transportation sees a person who has a bicycle as richer. A person with a simple car will think the one with a Mercedes is richer. It can never end. It is a source of social instability if the gap is too large.

How much is development and urbanization to blame?

Sometimes poor people in urban areas have more income than the average person in rural areas. Of course, social tensions usually happen in the urban areas. A communist uprising may start with a peasant movement but it will have to be decided in an urban environment. I do not want to exaggerate the potential frictions in Indonesia but if there is any potential for social instability, it is because of inequity.

Why all the stress on communism?

Indonesia is a very diverse country. We are still exposed to potential divergent views. We don't want to give any justification to cause disunity, because we have this plurality. We have experience of communism. In the countries where it started it has already failed, but because of our experience we always regard it very suspiciously. People may not call themselves communists, but the ideas of communism have not necessarily died.

Wouldn't it be better to restrain overt displays of wealth?

We did try this, but with this new age of open communications, even if we tell our television not to expose things that create social jealousy, people can still see what there is in Singapore and Malaysia. It is hard to tell people not to buy three cars.

Is social jealousy temporary ?

Many other countries have been through this. Society, when the time comes, will decide for itself and will regulate to stop all the excesses. They will introduce things like an anti-corruption, anti-trust law. But if we intervene too fast in the market by introducing too many gadgets, people will interpret it wrongly. On one side we need to deregulate, on the other to regulate. This will have to go hand in hand in such a balanced manner that it does not discourage investment.

Is it fair to attack radical students who want to do something about inequity?

This is not a crucifixion. They are being prosecuted because of their violations of the law, not because of what they think. I know these people; they are not powermongers. They are intelligent people, they are attuned to democracy and recognize it. I think they saw a threat to stability. We have to tell people there is a limit to this kind of thing.

Labor leader Mochtar Pakpahan is being investigated for subversion. Wasn't he trying to represent workers whose needs are not met by the official workers' organization?

Was his objective the establishment of a union for itself or was the objective the welfare of the workers? If the objective was the welfare of the workers, why can't the present system be a workable one? People tend to think of unionization as an end in itself. Sometimes it is not the end that is in mind but the means.

In Medan in 1993 the workers had issues they wanted addressed but the government refused to talk. Why?

These people organized a movement to put people in the streets. There is already a mechanism. The minimum wage has risen to the point where we are criticized by the World Bank because they see the increases are contributing to inflation and have re-duced Indonesia's competitive advantage. Without Mochtar Pakpahan, we have done this. I feel democracy is an important part of development. We do not want progress without democracy, but we also do not want democracy without progress.


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