A Wake-up Call to Jakarta: Governance, Please
International Herald Tribune, 7 February 2001
In recent days we have had the Indonesian defense minister raising the possibility of a military takeover, and seen the Parliament, surrounded by demonstrators, beginning a process that could well lead to the impeachment of the country’s first really democratically-elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid.
Not much is left of the euphoria that accompanied Wahid's election in October 1999. He has given Indonesians little reason to believe that the state will protect them from corruption, chaos and violence. His supporters have been rallying in recent days, but in recent weeks anti-Wahid demonstrations have reached a size comparable to those of the last days of President Suharto.
The reasons for the disaffection are clear enough. The economy is still limping badly, with investor confidence negligible. There is no resolution in sight of the separatist conflicts in Aceh and Irian Jaya, and the Maluku communal conflict has been fueled by the security forces taking sides.
Despite rhetorical commitment, the record in bringing major human rights violators to justice has been unimpressive, with convictions in only four major cases since 1998 (and reservations widely felt about three of those). Corruption charges against Soeharto were dismissed last year, and pursuit of other key figures has idled.
The immediate issue is the president's failure to provide a convincing explanation of his involvement in a financial scandal in which his masseur obtained, and apparently divided among figures linked to Wahid, $4 million from a state food agency. A $2 million dollar gift from the sultan of Brunei intended for social welfare programs has also gone conspicuously astray.
The sums involved are small compared to the plunder of state agencies carried out during the Suharto presidency, and the funds seem more likely to have benefited Wahid’s party than him personally. But in the new reform era the public rightly expects much more of its leaders.
On the credit side, Gus Dur the president has maintained his lifelong commitment to the promotion of religious and ethnic tolerance. Political opponents are no longer detained, he has moved toward ending official discrimination against Indonesians of Chinese descent, and he encourages public debate, emphasizing that differences of opinion are normal. And his open, casual and jokey style is still personally engaging. But friends and enemies alike wish that he would behave more like his country’s president, and less like the leader of a non-governmental organization.
His public political battle will be in the parliament, where Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri holds the key to his survival. If Mr Wahid is deposed, she would automatically succeed him. But she is cautious about taking action, and the support for her inside and outside the country is lukewarm. This is hardly surprising given the available evidence about her own business and military connections and her own lack of leadership skills.
Waiting in the wings through all this, although weakened and demoralized, are the old political forces that were allied with the Suharto regime, and especially the military. Defense Minister Mohammed Mahfud has told reporters that the armed forces could seize power if politicians fail to lead the country, or if chaos or anarchy cannot be controlled.
Mahfud is a constitutional lawyer, not a general, and his statement was more likely to have been a warning to the students massed against Wahid in the streets than a direct military threat. But there is no doubt that moderate reform elements within the military are finding it ever harder to hold the line against their more nostalgic colleagues.
Mr Wahid’s guile and negotiating skills should not be discounted, but if he is forced to make concessions to more conservative elements to preserve his position – in particular, retreating from greater accountability for military crimes, and effective action against corruption – Indonesia’s situation will become even more volatile and parlous.
Indonesia should be attracting more attention than it is getting from Washington and Europe. The impeachment procedures have about four months to run their course, and that time should be used constructively by everyone with a stake in the country’s stability – and that means the whole region, as well as most of the major powers – to get some very specific messages across.
Private messages should convey that international understanding and material support will be forthcoming if Indonesia does more to help itself - gets serious about corruption, brings the military leadership under effective civilian control, brings major human rights violators to justice, delivers evenhanded security protection to communities in conflict, devises a sensitive and workable political solution to the problems in Aceh and Irian Jaya, and generally behaves like a halfway competent government.
Indonesians know that their country is close to the edge and that its leadership is badly in need of a sharp wake-up call not only internally but from the international community.