World

A Nation in Peril

Warren Caragata October 11 1999
World

A Nation in Peril

Warren Caragata October 11 1999

A Nation in Peril

World

With $8 billion in investments, Canada has much at stake as revolts and riots threaten to destroy the fabric of Indonesia

Warren Caragata

All appears normal on the campus of Atma Jaya University in central Jakarta. Students sit in groups in the shade of large trees offering protection from a relentless afternoon sun. The food stalls do a brisk trade in nasi goreng, or Indonesian fried rice, and all manner of snacks. But on closer examination, all is not normal at all. The Indonesian flag flies at half-mast in memory of seven people killed in the latest round of violent demonstrations, including an engi-

neering student who died near the university’s gates. Students gather to discuss their next protest plans as the country’s newly elected parliament prepares for a session that will select a new president, or re-elect incumbent B. J. Habibie. If Habibie, 63, manages to scrape together a victory, the students are clear about what will happen next. “It’s revolution, not just a demonstration,” says Billi, an economics major.

With the heat of the dry season building towards the start of the fall rains, it was not just the air temperature that was rising. The political temperature was also climbing as the parliament, the 700-member People’s Consultative Assembly, began its long-awaited session late last week—almost four months after the first free national elections in 44 years. The problems in the world’s fourth-most-populous nation are profound, complex and many: an unfinished revolution in 1998 that felled longtime strongman Suharto but left Habibie, his onetime protégé, in the president’s office; an

economic crisis that saw the country reduced to pauper status, dependent on foreign aid; and a growing revolt in its far-flung regions. That revolt was highlighted by the Aug. 30 vote for independence in East Timor, and the resulting violence that left hundreds, perhaps thousands, dead.

Whether the country of 213 million will now be able to rise above its chaos is a question no one can answer with certainty. “Indonesia is facing a tremendous challenge, regardless of who the president is, to make sure the country gets back on its feet,” says Rene Cremonese, the chief political officer at the Canadian Embassy. Canadian companies have a lot at stake in the struggle. Their $8 billion in investments in Indonesia, heavily weighted in the oil and mining sectors, is greater than in any other Southeast Asian country.

Habibie’s main challengers are Megawati Sukarnoputri, 52, the reformist daughter of Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno, and an erratic alliance of Muslim parties loosely grouped around Abdurrahman Wahid, 59, who leads the country’s largest Islamic group. Megawati’s Democratic Party of Struggle won the largest number of votes in the June election but fell far short of the majority needed to elect her as president. In the background stands the commander of the powerful Indonesian armed forces, Gen. Wiranto, 52, touted by some as a possible candidate for either the vice-presidency or the top spot (like many Indonesians, he uses a single name). Wiranto’s support or acquiescence is considered critical for whomever takes the reins.

Yet Indonesia’s crisis is so deep that many people, inside and outside, worry that the country itself could fracture, with East Timor being only the first fissure. The archipelago is as broad as Europe and as diverse as India or the former Soviet Union.

Its 17,508 islands house about 300 ethnic groups speaking 583 languages and dialects, all bound by the same dream of its founders that the Dutch West Indies could become a viable state. Separatist movements are active in the west, in oilrich Aceh in northern Sumatra, and in the east, in Irian Jaya, the Indonesian half of New Guinea. Religious strife between Muslims and Christians in the Spice Islands capital of Ambon has left more than 200 dead since July alone. “There is an apprehension that we could be another Yugoslavia,” says Aristides Kartoppo, editor of the Jakarta daily Suara Pembaruan.

Nowhere is that comparison more clear-

cut than on the battered and bloodied landscape of East Timor, where Indonesian troops have now relinquished control of the former Portuguese colony to an Australian-led, UN-backed peacekeeping force. The mission, now 5,000 strong and aiming for 7,500, continued to build its presence last week with newly arrived help from two armour-plated Canadian Forces Hercules transport planes. They joined the international airlift bringing military supplies from Darwin, in northern Australia, and are the advance contingent of a Canadian force that will number about 600 by late October. Capt. Greg Hill of Edmonton, one of the Hercules pilots, said the crews feel good about their job. “Every time you drop something off, you get a bit of feeling that, in some small way, you’re helping out.”

Habibie and the military now face the prospect of a pending UN inquiry into alleged atrocities and crimes against humanity by Indonesian soldiers and the anti-independence militias they organized. Yet for Habibie, East Timor has been just one more wound in a year of political hemorrhage. Critics see his government as an extension of Suharto’s, unable to bring true reform. His Golkar party won only 20 per cent of the vote in the June election. Analysts still gave the Germaneducated former aeronautical engineer some chance, through parliamentary alliances, of being able to win election to a full five-year term. But he was severely stained this summer by a bank scandal involving alleged kickbacks to a company close to him, purportedly to help finance his re-election effort.

There were signs last week that Habibie’s grip may have been fatally weakened. As the parliament met in its first session on Friday, there were boos as Habibie entered the cavernous hall. Even Golkar’s governing council has distanced itself from its president. If Golkar does decide to ditch him, one option, said Marzuki Darusman, a key critic within the governing party, would be a grand coalition with Megawati and other parties. Such an alliance would mean, he said, that “the prospects are good for a peaceful transition.”

Megawati’s leadership skills remain untested. A strong nationalist, she opposed holding the Timor referendum and could be tough on other separatist movements. Critics say she is indecisive. But she is immensely popular, known universally as “Mega,” and is surrounded by a coterie of democratic reformers.

Many analysts think the country’s survival as a nation is intimately linked to the fate of reform. “It will not be in danger of splintering if we can go ahead with a transition to a new government,” says political analyst Wimar Witoelar. The world will be watching nervously to see which path is chosen by Southeast Asia’s crippled giant. EÜ3