President for life anarchy for years?

March 07, 1997|By Richard Reeves

JAKARTA -- The wiser among Indonesia's rich and powerful avoid using the word ''succession,'' lest the president hear of it. The story goes that one of Suharto's favorites, a general named Benny Murdani, lost his position a few years ago when he asked the president what he thought of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stepping aside for younger men in Singapore.

President Suharto, the second post-colonial leader of this vast archipelago country, is 75 years old. He took power in a military coup that removed the unstable founding father, President Sukarno.

In 30 years of power, Suharto has created an autocracy made to look like a democracy from a distance. If he were to retire tomorrow, he would be remembered as the man who guided the country from chaos to order and from poverty to prosperity.

From chaos to anarchy

If he does not quit and does not establish a rule of succession, things few expect him to do, he could be remembered for taking Indonesians from bloody chaos to bloody anarchy -- if there still is an Indonesia after Suharto.

It seems very far away and exotic, this state of 200 million people on more than 17,000 islands. Once called the Dutch East Indies, ruled from Amsterdam by force and terror for three and a half centuries, the idea of Indonesia is only 50 years old.

It was Sukarno's idea, but he was an incompetent tyrant. Freedom and independence came only after the fear and terror launched from Tokyo in the 1940s led to the flight of the Dutch before soldiers like Suharto, whose training and arms were provided and left by the Japanese in 1945.

But, in fact, the country, its rich resources and its short national history make it an exciting and dangerous place, quite like the United States in the mid-19th century. Gold has been discovered, after oil and natural gas.

The government is trying to turn a gigantic country into a nation by encouraging Muslim migration from the crowded cities and overworked farms of Java, along a watery Oregon Trail leading them into sometimes hostile tribal lands.

There is rebellion out there against the cold rule of Jakarta and Java. Civil war is possible, and many of the foreigners here seeking personal or corporate fortunes carry their passports every day, along with undated first-class tickets home, just in case.

A competent tyrant

There are differences, of course. The islands stretching over 3,000 miles are tropical; the peoples of Indonesia don't look at all like us.

More important, perhaps, there is no rule of law, and Suharto is no George Washington. General Washington, hero of the American revolution and father of his country, wanted to go home after eight years of power, and did, leaving a law and custom of peaceful succession.

Indonesia now is a country ruled by a competent tyrant; it may never become a nation.

It seems to depend on this man, Suharto -- and perhaps on tolerance of the predatory greed of his family and friends, rapacious even by colonial and dictatorial standards.

The country is booming; the growth rate of the economy is almost 10 percent a year; and the Suhartos (the president's children and a few trusted cronies) look to be getting about half that. Foreigners come to mine the gold or assemble automobiles or build toll roads through Jakarta, but first they must form partnerships with local companies that provide no capital and usually turn out to be owned by the Suhartos.

Though World Bank-types have conceded that 30 percent of the money lent to Indonesia disappears without a trace or record, nobody much minded that for a time. Suharto was seen as a great man who brought an orderly semblance of modern economy after the country almost collapsed when world oil prices dropped in the early 1980s. In Asia, a man's first responsibility is to his family, and Suharto had pulled himself up from hungry poverty. Millions of others were getting a bit of the action.

Small wars with natives

Yes, there was and is trouble in East Timor, violent riots as ethnic Malays and Chinese take the law into their own hands, killing hundreds in never-ending mistrust of each other. In the jungles there are small wars with natives, as there were on the plains of North America.

But in prosperous Java, with a population of 110 million (larger than any European country but Russia), there is a rising if whispered demand for reform and stability. It is time for laws to protect property and newly created wealth.

The whispers do not seem to be reaching the president through his vaunted network of loyal informers. There is no obvious or trained successor, and he appears to have every intention of re-electing himself next year after ''parliamentary'' elections this year.

The system is complicated and thoroughly corrupt, but it is similar to early American indirect elections, with limited franchise, an appointed Senate and controlled Electoral College.

Out here, Suharto determines who can run for a 500-member House of Representatives; then he appoints, in one way or another, 500 others to form a 1,000-member People's Consultative Assembly, which then chooses the new president.

That president, though, probably won't be new. Perhaps Suharto has a plan to install one of his sons or daughters, but he has not shown his hand -- or perhaps has not yet figured out how to play it. But he will. The man, like his country, says one American resident, is like mercury: ''smooth, opaque and elusive.''

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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