Indonesia on the brink of collapse hopes for democratic reform fading

Struggling archipelago faces a 'fragile moment' as elections near

December 26, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- In Indonesia, the sequel to a year of living dangerously is "Another Year of Living Dangerously."

Battered and bloodied by economic collapse, political upheaval, social mayhem and waves of savage killings, the world's fourth-most-populous nation will stagger into 1999 certain of only one thing: Even more trouble lies ahead.

The fall of President Suharto in May after three decades of authoritarian rule has opened the door to reform and democracy for this sprawling archipelago of more than 200 million people. But seven months after Suharto was forced to resign, the country's two strongest institutions -- the presidency and the military -- are in disrepute, and his legacy of corruption, ethnic manipulation and institutional weakness has pushed the nation to the brink of collapse.

"We're experiencing a complete institutional failure," said Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, a former environment minister in Suharto's Cabinet who is a leading voice for reform. "Before, when there was a national crisis, we could rely on the armed

forces to be part of the solution. But now the government, courts, police, army and recognized political parties are all part of the problem."

If Southeast Asia's largest nation were to run amok, the implications for the region and beyond would be enormous. Chaos in Indonesia would put a new scare in the financial markets while the country's Asian neighbors are still trying to recover from the last crisis, and could send a flood of refugees toward Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

The emergence of another authoritarian regime, especially one backed by extremist Islamic elements, could trigger a shift in the strategic balance in Southeast Asia, in part because Indonesia straddles the shipping lanes that connect Japan, Taiwan and China to Mideast oil and European markets. Already, Singapore and Japan have agreed to more exchanges between their armies and navies to prepare for trouble.

"We have an historical opportunity for change," said Arief Budiman, a political science professor who lost his job at a Jakarta university after criticizing Suharto. "But when history knocks on the door, there's nobody there. There are no leaders."

More than 100 political parties have bloomed to compete in general elections scheduled for June. Some are based exclusively on religion, ethnicity or the personalities of their founders. Others espouse lofty and inclusive principles but are vague on policies. And few -- including those headed by leading reform figures Megawati Soekarnoputri, Amien Rais and Abdurrahman Wahib, also known as Gus Dur -- seem inclined to form the alliances needed to wrest control from President B. J. Habibie, who inherited the presidency from Suharto.

Nor are there many followers with experience participating in the political decisions that shape their lives, noted student leader Rama Pratama.

"We are in a dilemma," he said. "For 32 years under the Suharto regime, there was no education for us in democracy. We must start from the zero point. Many people have to learn democracy -- not only the government and political parties, but students, too. It's a very, very fragile moment."

Many fear the June elections will result in violence. Not even the government official responsible for overseeing the elections is confident that they can be conducted peacefully.

Security forces have maintained a strong presence on Jakarta's streets since May, frequently clashing with student demonstrators and riotous mobs. Last month, on the final day of a special session of the national assembly, a day remembered as "Black Friday," troops opened fire on student protesters, killing at least 15 and wounding hundreds.

Nine days later, Muslim resentment against the ethnic Chinese minority erupted. Fourteen more people died and 22 ethnic-Chinese Christian churches and several Christian schools were torched.

Between eruptions, the city simmers. Daily student demonstrations snarl traffic and paralyze the central business district, where many offices have been closed by the contracting economy.

Throughout much of the nation, conditions are no better. In some places, they are worse. Riots ripple daily through the countryside, where tens of millions have fallen into desperate poverty. Food shortages are common, and in several provinces, secessionist movements are gaining.

The man in charge has tried to position himself as a convert to reform. But Habibie's critics say he is a protector of the status quo, a perception reinforced by the snail's pace of the government's probe into the wealth of Suharto, who is suspected of salting away billions in public funds.

Habibie said recently that it would be "arrogant" of him not to accept another term if asked, but it is not clear he will be asked.

The president cannot even count on support from Golkar, the ruling party to which most officials at the national, provincial and district levels belong.

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