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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

AVOIDING FURTHER TRAGEDY

Suharto should go quickly--so his nation's recovery can begin


FOR CENTURIES, THE CONCEPT had underpinned political legitimacy in the seminal civilizations of East Asia. The Chinese called it tianming, while the Javanese knew it as wahyu. It meant divine blessing for a ruler's regime. If he possessed the mandate of heaven, a king or emperor would exercise wise, moral and unquestioned authority, and his people would enjoy peace and prosperity. If not, the opposite conditions would prevail. Sometime during the past week, President Suharto, Indonesia's unchallenged ruler for the past 32 years, irrevocably lost his wahyu.

Precisely when it happened was unclear. But the trigger was the killing on May 12 of four student protesters in Jakarta by Indonesian security forces. Then came several days of rioting, looting and burning in the capital, resulting in some 500 deaths. The fragmented opposition joined the students in demanding Suharto's resignation. A faction of Golkar, the ruling party, repeated that call. On May 18, the growing chorus gained an unexpected and significant new member: Parliamentary Speaker Harmoko, long one of the president's most loyal allies. He said that parliament's leaders, "for the sake of national unity," wanted Suharto to step down.

The events forced what was a stunning concession by Suharto's standards. On May 19, he promised elections to form a new parliament "as soon as possible." Then he would stand down as president. Meantime, a special committee would be created to address political reform. With the military's pivotal support for controlled change, Suharto was plainly trying to buy time for himself. Yet the lack of specifics about the polls, including a timetable, has raised widespread skepticism about his intentions. Also troubling was the leading role Suharto would have in such a reform effort.

The crux of the crisis is now clear. Both the Indonesian people and the international community, the two keys to the nation's ability to regain stability and recover, have lost their faith in Suharto. At a time when decisive leadership and urgent action are needed, he has repeatedly proven himself to be the most reluctant of reformers. The reason is also obvious: many of the fundamental changes his country needs are diametrically opposed to the interests of his clan and his clique of cronies. The reforms include the dismantling of economic and political monopolies they have long enjoyed. Last week, the World Bank announced it would suspend a scheduled $1.2-billion loan that was a part of Indonesia's IMF bailout package, citing local uncertainties. The Fund itself, and the Asian Development Bank, may follow suit.

Having become the biggest obstacle to his own country's rehabilitation, Suharto must step down quickly. Otherwise, popular ire will escalate as cynicism fuels growing anguish. Continued military loyalty to Suharto may then lead to protracted and increasingly bloody civil strife. That would plunge Indonesia's shattered economy into depths previously unimagined. At the end of the road lies revolution, with countless casualties. The shockwaves would be felt throughout the region, whose financial markets were just starting to stabilize amid its most serious economic crisis in decades. Following Indonesia down the drain would be much of the painstaking effort by both governments and international aid agencies, as well as the painful sacrifices undertaken by ordinary Asians, to turn things around.

What to do? If Suharto's new proposal is to have any chance of stabilizing the situation, he must quickly fill in some crucial gaps. That means naming a specific date for the election - certainly within three months, given the nation's desperate economic condition - as well as a polling method and structure that are acceptable to Indonesians. He must also say exactly when he will relinquish power. Economically, too, any new initiatives must show results rapidly. Influential Indonesians, as well as neighboring leaders, should urge such moves upon Suharto. The time for fence-sitting is over.

If Suharto fails to gain popular support for his plan, the catastrophe scenarios will very soon come into play. Then, for the sake of the nation and the region, only one option is left: Indonesia's military chiefs must tell the president to step aside immediately. Otherwise, they would have to shed a lot of civilian blood, permanently tarnishing the armed forces' own proud reputation as the people's ultimate protector. Under such circumstances, Suharto's removal would pave the way for the formation of a provisional government of national reconciliation. The body should include respected figures from the military, Golkar, the opposition and religious groups. A key task, of course, would be to arrange credible ways to produce a more permanent and representative leadership.

Whichever way Indonesia decides to go, the main challenges are the same. The most urgent task is the restoration of law and order. Having a credible leadership committed to a clear program for change would do much to temper the anger that had fueled the unrest. So would firm but sensitive action by the security forces. Above all, though, ways must be found to relieve some of the economic burdens that are crushing so many.

The basic agreements with the IMF, especially on economic restructuring and increased transparency, must be honored. But even before last week's strife, Indonesia's jobless rate had been projected to reach 11% this year, and its economy to contract by more than 10%. Inflation may soon hit 100%, in part because of the lifting of basic subsidies mandated by the IMF to achieve budget targets. The resulting steep rises in fuel and electricity prices were the immediate trigger of last week's riots. Plainly, a reassessment of some IMF measures is needed if average Indonesians are not to be pushed over the brink. The Fund, and the Western governments that control it, would be much more amenable to undertaking such a review with a new Indonesian authority than with Suharto.

Then there is political reform. The entire system, evolved over decades around one man, has to be overhauled. The nation's overriding need for stability means that a gradualist approach is essential. For starters, elections to form a new parliament must be made more open and fair. The current ban on the formation of new political parties should be scrapped, as should the government's power to vet poll candidates. The number of appointed lawmakers and seats reserved for the military should be reduced. Indonesia, like the Philippines after the departure of Ferdinand Marcos, may wish to consider term limits for its president. The mass media must be allowed to retain their new-found independence, not least so they can help check corruption and abuse of power.

However Indonesia's drama unfolds, the Suharto era is clearly drawing to a close. The president can retain a measure of dignity and even honor if he chooses to step aside with dispatch, bending not only to his people's will but also to the irresistible force of international realities. The alternative would be a tragedy of monumental proportions.


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