Indonesia must stick together

Crisis: Evolution toward democracy, stronger economy, is more important than East Timor.

September 21, 1999

BEFORE East Timor's Aug. 30 referendum for independence, its destruction by militia and the United Nations occupation that began yesterday, Indonesia was in crisis.

The cohesion of the world's fourth-biggest country, with 210 million people on thousands of islands speaking hundreds of dialects, is more important than the secession of some 800,000 on a lesser isle.

If Australia is taking the lead in the force that will aid, guide and protect East Timor, Washington should concentrate on helping Indonesia evolve toward democracy, reduce its army's role, strengthen civil society, restore the economy and -- above all -- hold together.

Indonesia has just been humiliated, as has its ruling army. Many Indonesians responded with xenophobia and conspiracy theories, some involving oil beneath the sea in the Timor Gap near Australia.

This comes when Indonesia's economy is painfully emerging from the Asian debt crisis; when President B. J. Habibie is preparing a ritual accountability speech; when the June 7 election produced a plurality of 34 percent wanting the untested Megawati Sukarnoputri for president; and when unrest grips Ambon, western New Guinea and northern Sumatra.

The People's Consultative Assembly of 700 members -- 462 of them elected -- is due to convene Oct. 1, and pick a president in early November. Unrest is expected if Megawati is chosen, or is not. Jakarta is rife with coup rumors.

The army commander, General Wiranto, is the most powerful and humiliated Indonesian. He and President Habibie were chosen by destiny to lead from the 32-year Suharto dictatorship to a democratic society. Timor might be the excuse to take another path.

In this predicament, Washington leads in influence, both economic and military. The worst thing Congress could do is micro-manage Indonesia policy in any direction. Carrot and stick are equally needed, held firmly in the administration's hands.

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