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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

SEPTEMBER 24, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 38

On the Firing Line
Habibie gives in to international pressure over foreign intervention - but his problems are far from over
By SANGWON SUH and TOM McCAWLEY

photo
Demonstrators burn American and Australian flags in front of the Australian embassy in Jakarta. East Timor has led to an upsurge in nationalist sentiment among Indonesians. Kemal Jufri for Asiaweek
What a difference three months can make. In June, Indonesia was the toast of the international community. The country had just undertaken a largely successful parliamentary election -- its first free poll in over four decades. Notwithstanding the sporadic outbreaks of violence and the slow vote count, the event was hailed as a new beginning for Indonesia, a step away from the tainted regime of the past.

Three months later, Indonesia is hearing a distinctly different tune. Goodwill generated over Jakarta's decision to hold the Aug. 30 referendum on East Timor's status quickly dissipated as pro-integration militias went on a rampage after East Timorese had overwhelmingly voted for independence. As Dili burned, its residents fled in terror; Indonesian soldiers joined in the violence; a despairing world called on Jakarta to rein in the militias, to accept international peacekeepers, to do something. And Jakarta fiddled. By the time the government belatedly agreed to permit U.N. peacekeepers into East Timor, the damage had been done: Indonesia had suddenly gone from an international darling to an international ogre.

Perhaps no one personifies Indonesia's fall from grace better than President B.J. Habibie. Previously, he may have been a less-than-credible presidential candidate from the tarnished Golkar ruling party, but he was still seen as a major political force. Now, in the wake of the East Timor crisis, not to mention the Bank Bali scandal, whatever reputation and credibility he had left are gone. His weakness has been underscored by recent -- unfounded -- rumors that he had been ousted in a military coup. Even without a coup, party stalwarts agree that his political career is over.

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
On the Firing Line
Habibie gives in to international pressure over foreign intervention - but his problems are far from over

It's the Army, Stupid
Ramos-Horta on Indonesia's real problem

Indonesia Pays the Price
Savagery and scandal test the economy

Timor's Trail of Tears
Refugees face violence, starvation and exile

'We Were Surprised'
Ginandjar on East Timor and Bank Bali

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In hindsight, it seems things could not have turned out otherwise. Once East Timor blew up, Habibie was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Do nothing and you hear threatening noises from abroad, including talk of sanctions. Let foreign peacekeepers in and you earn the ire of nationalist-minded compatriots. In the end, Habibie decided that the greater need was to appease the international community. The U.S. had cut its military ties with Indonesia, while the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund warned that loans and aid to the economically struggling nation could be at risk if the East Timor problem was not resolved. After a tense meeting with his cabinet and the military brass, Habibie finally announced on Sept. 12 that Indonesia was inviting the U.N. to send peacekeepers to East Timor.

The announcement was welcomed, not least by beleaguered East Timorese refugees huddled in the U.N. compound in Dili. But even as the U.N. started to make preparations, it became apparent that Jakarta remained reluctant about letting foreign -- especially Western -- troops in. Observers noticed subtle differences between the Indonesian and English versions of Habibie's announcement. The latter made no mention of any Indonesian role in the peacekeeping, while the former stated that U.N. forces would work in tandem with the Indonesian military -- indicating that there would be no pullout of Indonesian troops. Later, Habibie stated that they would act as "advisers" to U.N. forces.

Indonesian officials also made noises to the effect that some countries would be less welcome than others in East Timor. The DPR, Indonesia's parliament, voted against allowing "countries which have a political interest" -- including Australia, New Zealand and East Timor's former colonial master Portugal -- to be part of the peacekeeping force. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, however, made it clear that the final decision would lie with the U.N. Security Council. On Sept. 15, the body passed a resolution authorizing a multinational force to "restore peace and security to East Timor." Australia, which has been chomping at the bit to go in, was asked to lead the expedition. Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore are also expected to contribute troops.

The peacekeepers cannot come in too soon. Some 300,000 East Timorese -- from a total population of 850,000 -- have been driven from their homes and are hiding in the hills, where they are reportedly starving. (The U.N. is planning airdrops of food and supplies.) Another estimated 150,000 have been forcibly moved to camps in West Timor, where there have been reports that militias are hunting down those with pro-independence sentiments.

The arrival of the multinational force, however, is not likely to mean a quick resolution of the problem. First, there is the danger of clashes between the peacekeepers and the militias. Militia leaders have called for a partition of East Timor, saying they are "ready to fight to the last man" for the cause. Joining the militias are an estimated 5,000 deserters from the Indonesian army. "So many people on the ground stand to lose everything," says a diplomat in Jakarta. "They will fight to the death."

Then there is the likelihood that the already heated nationalistic atmosphere in the rest of the country will be further inflamed by the sight of foreign troops landing on Indonesian soil. In Jakarta, protesters have been taking to the streets regularly to rail against what they perceive as a conspiracy by Western powers to weaken the country. "Indonesia's disintegration is being caused by the evil of Australia, America and the U.N.!" shouted protester Jeki Hussein as an Australian flag was burned outside U.N. offices. The anger pervades through all social strata. "We have to be able to pay back those arrogant people," says Edi Sunarto, an executive at a securities firm -- and a graduate of the University of Melbourne. While Indonesians do not deny that East Timorese have suffered, a widespread sense is that everyone was a victim under Suharto.

There are rumblings in the military too, and the views of Lt. Andianto, who once served in East Timor, are perhaps typical. "There are two heroes' cemeteries in East Timor and they are much bigger than those elsewhere," he says. "How does Habibie's administration rate the sacrifice my friends made? It seems my friends died for nothing." He recalls a time when he and a friend were ambushed by East Timor's Fretilin rebels. Andianto was able to hide, but the friend was captured. Andianto secretly followed the guerrillas to their base, where he saw his friend and other captives die a grisly death: by having their body parts hacked off one by one. The dead men's genitalia were then strung up on a line. Says Andianto: "Maybe we have been nasty, but the world also has to see the other side's cruelty too."

Domestically, the Indonesians' anger has been directed at one man: Habibie. His political rivals have been quick to make him the scapegoat for the East Timor debacle. The main charge is that Habibie sacrificed national stability to enhance his own international standing. By offering the option of independence to East Timor, critics say, Habibie made a decision of national consequences that he, as an interim president, had no authority to make. He is also blamed for proceeding too fast with the referendum, when a slow, steady approach would have been less traumatic.

What may be the final nail in Habibie's coffin is the ongoing Bank Bali scandal (or "Baligate," as Indonesians call it). The affair concerns a $70-million "commission" the bank paid to a former deputy treasurer of Golkar. The money, derived from borrowed international funds, was revealed to have been channeled into a company linked to Golkar officials. The suspicion is that Habibie used the funds during the June election campaign to boost his re-election bid. (The People's Consultative Assembly, or MPR, meets in November to select the president.) Habibie has denied the charge, but Glenn Yusuf, chairman of the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency, told parliament on Sept. 14 that one of Habibie's closest aides had asked him to cover up the affair. A report by international auditors states that "numerous indicators of fraud, non-compliance, irregularity, misappropriation, undue preferential treatment, concealment, bribery and corruption" were uncovered.

With Habibie severely weakened, how does the presidential race look? The biggest beneficiary is leading presidential contender Megawati Sukarnoputri, who now appears better positioned than ever to be the country's next president. Her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which led the pack in the June election with 33.7% of the votes, has clinched 153 places in the 500-seat parliament. With strategic alliances with other parties, she should be well placed to get the necessary votes to be elected into office.

By contrast, Wiranto, widely seen as a possible vice-presidential -- even presidential -- candidate, may have slipped slightly. His international standing has fallen due to the military's inability -- or unwillingness -- to check the violence in East Timor. At the same time, his association with Habibie's acceptance of foreign troops has not endeared him to some quarters in the army. "He's not strong enough to act against the hardliners and has lost support over this," says one military intelligence officer. Still, Wiranto's political clout cannot be discounted. There has long been talk of a Megawati-Wiranto team-up, and Megawati has been careful not to burn any bridges with the military -- as revealed by a recent opinion piece she wrote for Newsweek magazine. In the column, she castigated Habibie for the East Timor mess, labeling him irresponsible and "undemocratic" -- yet she made no mention of the army's culpability, nor that of the militias. While some feel the PDI-P may be playing with fire by associating with the military, a Megawati aide says the party has little choice: "The PDI-P has to compromise with the army. It's the reality."

Meanwhile, the ruling party is in damage-control mode. Habibie's woes have provided ammunition to those within Golkar who were never happy with the choice of the diminutive leader as the party's presidential candidate. Golkar's deputy secretary-general Muchyar Yara says the party will re-evaluate his candidacy. "This is a critical time, because if we fail to provide a legitimate president, we will be finished," he says. Yara cites four "sins" of Habibie: failure to fully investigate former president Suharto's misdeeds; failure to provide peace and security for his people; his implication in Baligate; and his mishandling of East Timor.

Whether or not Golkar chooses to discard him, Habibie now gives new meaning to the term "lame duck." "His presidency is useless now," says Jakarta-based political scientist Muhammad Hikam. "His career is finished." When Habibie first offered East Timor the option of independence, he may have done so with the best intentions. In view of how things have turned out, that unfortunately won't be enough to salvage his political future.n

With additional reporting by Dewi Loveard/Jakarta and Yenni Kwok/Hong Kong

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