U.S. officials ask Indonesia to move toward democracy Delegation finds nation approaching collapse as millions fall into poverty

August 02, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- With U.S. officials warning that Indonesia is on the verge of economic and social collapse, a Clinton administration delegation led by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen called on Indonesia's new president and military commanders yesterday to end human rights abuses and show restraint if government opponents take to the streets again.

Cohen is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Indonesia since President Suharto was forced to resign in May after 32 years in power. He said that the country, the world's fourth-most populous, was in the midst of a crisis and that he had urged its leaders to move quickly "toward a democratic form of government."

The defense secretary described his meetings here with President B. J. Habibie, Suharto's former vice president and his successor, and Gen. Wiranto, the military commander, as "very open, very candid." He said he was encouraged by their response. Habibie, he said, "indicated his strong commitment to place human rights at a very high level of concern and his commitment to the people of Indonesia."

More than 1,200 people were killed in May in the rioting that led to Suharto's resignation.

The end of the Suharto era did not halt the staggering economic slide of Indonesia, which faces its worst economic crisis in decades. An estimated 100 million people -- about half of the population -- are expected to sink below the poverty line by the end of the year. The crisis has wiped out 30 years of impressive economic growth. Malnutrition is widespread and growing.

Administration officials say that Cohen and senior U.S. military commanders were sent to Indonesia last week in hopes that the high-level visit would impress the country's military. As Indonesia's strongest government institution, it may hold the key to the future of this nation of many islands.

Ties in recent years between U.S. and Indonesian military commanders have been close -- far too close, according to rights groups in Indonesia.

The Pentagon has been embarrassed by reports that an elite U.S.-trained Indonesian military unit was responsible for some of the killings in May, as well as the kidnappings of democracy activists who have not been found.

Cohen held a news conference at the Defense Ministry after meeting with Wiranto (who like many Indonesians uses only one name). The defense secretary said he urged the Indonesian commander to investigate the military's role in the violence.

"I do know that the Indonesian government has a number of investigations under way in terms of any abuses of human rights," Cohen said.

The United States suspended most of its ties to the Indonesian military because of the uprising in May, in which U.S.-trained troops have been accused of violence. Still, Cohen said the United States hopes to "build upon a military relationship in the future."

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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