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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

Divided They Stand, for Now

Suharto's opponents propose different ends, and means

Andrée Feillard
is a Paris-based scholar of Indonesian Islam and a former staff correspondent for Asiaweek in Jakarta


INDONESIA TRADITIONALLY HAS BEEN slow to make political changes: it took three years for the New Order regime to rid itself of the country's first president, Sukarno, whose main mistake was to mismanage the economy (and then protect the Communist Party). Ironically, President Suharto, who can take much credit for Indonesia's development, is now facing a similar economic challenge. Indonesians are starting to suffer from the financial crisis: imported food and medicine are too expensive for many and even some basic goods are difficult to come by. But any moves toward political change are likely to be slow and "constitutional." The March 10 presidential elections probably will not be the radical turn-around many are longing for.

Much hope had been placed on the alliance between Megawati Sukarnoputri, the ousted leader of the Democratic Party (PDI) and Sukarno's daughter, and Amien Rais, the head of Indonesia's second-largest Muslim organization, the 28-million strong Muhammadiyah. But the alliance, which has proven sterile so far, is a mismatch. Both stand against corruption, nepotism and cronyism, but beyond that the alliance is shaky. They disagree on the central issue: how to reform the economy and deal with the ethnic Chinese dominance of private capital. Megawati takes a pluralistic approach, gathering behind her the popular classes and the intellectual elite, including secular Muslims, Christians and ethnic Chinese. Amien Rais's constituency includes those Muslims who harbor grudges against the ethnic Chinese and Christians. Rais made a name for himself by condemning the ethnic Chinese dominance of the economy and the Christian influence in Java, all in the name of Islam. Megawati and Rais have different values.

Some Indonesians blame the alliance's failure (so far) to dethrone Suharto on Abdurrahman Wahid, the other inescapable popular figure, who heads the major Muslim traditionalist organization, the 30-million member Nahdlatul Ulama. Wahid, though now recovering from a stroke, earlier had made clear his misgivings about the alliance. Wahid shares the desire Rais and Megawati have for a clean government and for social justice, but he is particularly wary of political violence. He would not threaten to call people to the streets; Megawati and Rais have avoided doing so thus far. Wahid, a refined politician with years of experience maneuvering to survive in an unfriendly political environment, had long ago chosen his path: non-confrontation.

This caused some misunderstandings between Wahid and Megawati (or at least some of her supporters) during last year's parliamentary elections. Wahid usually backs all three official political parties. But after Megawati was removed as PDI leader, Wahid could not support the party. To some, the fact that he still endorsed the ruling party, Golkar, seemed a betrayal of his democratic ideals. But the strained relations between Wahid and Megawati have eased recently.

It is the protracted friction between Rais and Wahid that is a more serious worry. Competition has marked the history of their two organizations, the reformist Muhammadiyah and the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). The distant cordiality reached in the 1980s was replaced by an increased hostility in the 1990s. Rais joined the government-sponsored Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) in 1990, while Wahid politely chose to keep his independence. This decision led to a tough character-assassination campaign against Wahid that in 1994 almost cost him the chairmanship of the NU. Wahid has put this harassment behind him and welcomed Rais's efforts to "politically educate" the people.

Here again, values differ. Rais, and ICMI intellectuals in general, believe the president's cabinet should comprise more Muslim ministers than it has in the past. Wahid, on the other hand, prefers a meritocracy. The disagreement is fundamental. On the economy too, positions differ: Wahid insists on proceeding cautiously and fairly, so as not to run the risk of the nation imploding. Only recently has Rais moderated his stance, which Wahid qualifies as "sectarian."

Suharto's own strategy to counter ethnic Chinese economic dominance has been mostly to promote indigenous businessmen (pribumi), who happen to have either family or other ties to him. B.J. Habibie, the sponsor of the ICMI intellectuals and the presumed vice president as of March 11, is now seen by some former supporters as just another Suharto crony. But Habibie, the foreign-trained engineer, is the pride of many villagers and the hope of part of the Muslim bourgeoisie. To this last group, indigenous cronyism is better than ethnic Chinese cronyism.

Suharto's dilemma is that, to overcome the crisis, he needs ethnic Chinese support and capital more than ever, but never before has he faced such demands for economic reform that favors pribumi. Habibie's ascendancy would give Suharto two advantages: it would show that he favors the indigenous business class and give him an ally if he avoids the economic rigor that would hurt the business interests of friends and family. But Suharto has been an unpredictable politician at key moments of his rule. The prediction most likely to come true is, unfortunately, that there will be more violence against Christians and ethnic Chinese.


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