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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

DEFUSING A BOMB

Jakarta needs to proceed with political reform


IN INDONESIA, WHERE RITUAL too often passes for politics, student protests actually mean something. They are clear pointers to a popular desire for change. The current wave of protest has lasted three months and demonstrators are demanding nothing less than the removal of President Suharto. In turn, Suharto has threatened "repressive measures." When 1,500 activists in Medan defied government orders on May 4 and marched off campus, they were met with tear gas and an army presence. Declared General Wiranto, the armed forces chief: "I have ordered firm action against activities that clearly tend toward anarchy."

And anarchy is what the government fears most. The day of rioting coincided with an announcement on the lifting of fuel subsidies in line with reform pledges to the IMF. Petrol prices soared by about 71%, diesel by 39% and even kerosene, commonly used in cooking, rose by 25%. Ordinary citizens have lost their last protection against the full force of a devalued rupiah. The risk is that a wave of anger may bring workers and the public out in support of the students.

Escalating the crackdown is not the answer. If a violent response by the authorities turns bloody, further tranches of bailout funds from the IMF may well be withheld, plunging the country even deeper into turmoil. The government needs to show restraint - but so must the students. More radical, or even violent, action on their part would force Jakarta's hand. Instead both sides must work cautiously toward a compromise that would produce clear proposals for change. To defuse the underlying tensions, genuine political dialogue should replace the empty rituals.

If the students want a serious hearing, they must put their own house in order. So far, their message and their methods have been naive, with little national coordination and a hazy blueprint for life after Suharto. When powerful army interests coincide with the youth movement, history is often made in Indonesia. This time the top student protesters have refused even to meet with the generals. Many past demonstrations managed to remain peaceful. But if the conflicts persist, more Medans may result. So long as they appear to be a riotous rabble, the students will only buttress the government position that Indonesians need to be ruled with a firm hand.

Even so, it is in Jakarta's own interest to make good on pledges of reform. Otherwise, the nation risks a dangerous slide toward anarchy, with protests giving way to riots. Such circumstances could produce a galvanizing leader who would pose a serious threat to Suharto. A major cause of the current impasse is the progressive weakening of national institutions during the president's rule. Only by ensuring that parliament, the judiciary and civil society are strong and independent can dissent be institutionalized. And only then can Indonesia procced confidently to tackle its myriad challenges.

On May 1, Suharto angered many when he seemed to put off political reform until 2003, when his term ends. But a quick "clarification" by ministers stressed that while the implementation of changes might have to wait, their formulation need not. Like everything in Indonesia, the pace will depend on Suharto. He has little time to lose. The message that reform will come later carried little weight in Medan. The time bomb on the campuses continues to tick away.


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