Half-measures bring more calls for change Indonesia: Election next year, investigation of Suharto wealth, unlikely to be enough.

June 02, 1998

B. J. HABIBIE, who became president of Indonesia for the next five years upon President Suharto's May 21 resignation, has given demonstrators more than he initially thought required.

He has agreed to an election next year, without saying who would be eligible or how free the parties would be. His attorney general has launched an investigation into Suharto's legendary wealth and corruption, which might or might not be a whitewash.

The election pledge has not appeased the opposition, which wants the tame legislative assembly to pick an interim president, untainted by Suhartoism, this summer. A group of retired generals supports the call. And the investigation as announced is too little to satisfy critics.

In political terms, Indonesia is in a revolutionary condition. This does not mean violence, necessarily, but fundamental change with no end in sight. Each half-concession, meant to quiet the mob, whets the popular appetite for more.

In the Cold War era, change that got out of hand would create fears of communism. Today, however, even with communism alive in China and Vietnam, this danger is neither clear nor present. Amien Rais, who has become the outspoken opposition leader as head of an Islamic movement, looms as the extreme. He has made opposition respectable and criticism safer than it was. Something like open debate is popping up.

While this situation is hopeful politically, it is harmful economically. Prices rose in May at a rate above 50 percent annual inflation. There is no confidence. Whatever the International Monetary Fund does, foreign lenders are unlikely to extend loans to corporations in disarray.

While General Wiranto tries to consolidate his control of the officer corps, the army remains the glue holding Indonesia together. If it becomes convinced that the 200 million Indonesians require an orderly transition to democracy, with social stability, a start can be made on resurrecting the economy. It's what the Indonesians need.

Pub Date: 6/02/98

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