Subject: Le Monde diplomatique: Indonesia Faces Dual Assault 
Date: Sat, 18 Mar 2000

Le Monde diplomatique March 2000


Indonesia faces dual assault

Since the fall of General Suharto, Indonesia has elected Abdurrahman Wahid, a democrat and a Muslim, as president and recognised the independence of East Timor. If he is to restore democracy, however, Wahid must reduce the role of the army which has had too much power for too long. His task is all the harder as he must urgently resolve two separatist conflicts in Aceh and Papua and deal with an explosive situation in the Moluccas.


The government installed on 26 October 1999 owes much to the personality of Gus Dur (Big Brother Dur), an affectionate diminutive that Indonesians use for their new president, Abdurrahman Wahid. His room for manoeuvre is increased as he enjoying two sources of legitimacy: he was elected according to the rules and he has authority as a Muslim leader (1). A long-time defender of human rights, he is opposed to all forms of sectarianism and believes the state should be neutral in matters of religion. With a biting sense of humour, he is quite an unpredictable president - the antithesis of the silent, ceremonial power of a Suharto.

On taking office, the president gave the generals a sizeable place (five portfolios) in his government. But observers point out that this is also a way of withdrawing the most influential of them from active service - not least General Wiranto, who was commander in chief of the armed forces (TNI) during the East Timor crisis and considered one of Suharto's men. Unprecedentedly Wiranto has been replaced by a naval officer; and for the first time in 40 years the minister of defence is a civilian (albeit well regarded by the military). Clearly the new regime intends controlling an army that has always considered itself the final arbiter of the nation's destiny.

The government is made up of a coalition diverse enough to inspire doubts as to its effectiveness. It has representatives of the main parties, including the former ruling party, Golkar, and the Muslim parties who together won Wahid the presidency at the expense of Megawati Sukarnoputri (daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia's first head of state from 1945 to 1967). Still, she was elected vice-president, having become over time the symbol of resistance to Suharto. A ministry of human rights has been created, non-Javanese are better represented than in the past, and the priority sector of the economy and finance has gone to a Sino-Indonesian economist - a gesture full of meaning for the Chinese minority whose capital has fled the country and who are in need of reassurance.

Despite these positive signals, however, dark clouds are hanging over Indonesia, which now looks set to break up. Encouraged by the example of East Timor, the separatist movement in Aceh has demanded a referendum and independence. This north Sumatran province rich in natural gas, where Islam is more militant, has since 1980 has been fighting a guerrilla war that the army has tried in vain to crush. Violence there has redoubled. The formation of the Aceh Independence Movement dates back to 1976. The army put it down so harshly that Wiranto had to apologise to the Aceh people in October 1998 when mass graves were discovered.

President Wahid has refused to give way to the military, who wanted to impose martial law in Aceh. But he has had to go back on an over-hasty promise of a referendum and reassure his Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) partners, worried at seeing Indonesia's unity under threat and at risk of setting an unfortunate precedent. Instead, he entered into negotiations with the separatists, taking advantage of their divisions. The situation in Aceh is still very tense, but there has been talk of a cease-fire since the president went there on 25 January.

In Irian Jaya - which Wahid authorised to reassume the name of Papua from 1 January, calls for independence have also been strengthened by the Timorese example. Under Dutch control until 1962, this region rich in oil, copper and timber began its struggle for independence in the 1970s after a rigged ballot announced its incorporation into Indonesia. Since then, the policy of "transmigration" has brought Indonesians in from Java and the Celebes so that now less than half the 2 million inhabitants are Papuans.

Here, too, the path of negotiation leading to greater autonomy has been preferred. A law on a more favourable distribution of income to the regions (at district, not at provincial level) was adopted in May 1999 and will come into force in May 2001. It is only partially satisfactory but still looks like a step forward towards necessary decentralisation.

Wahid has therefore brought in a new climate of freedom. For the press he has abolished the ministry of information with its stifling censorship. Political prisoners have been released, political exiles encouraged to return, and former communist prisoners are daring to speak of their experiences. And the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission on the South African model is being suggested. The inquiry into Suharto's former administration is likely to resume. Welcomed by commentators as the strengthening of civil society, this is all very worrying to some of the generals. But the army seems to be no longer in a position of strength. It is divided - some officers believe its political role should be downgraded - and its past excesses are no longer a taboo subject.

On 13 January Wahid sacked the armed forces spokesman who had openly challenged the president's policy of negotiation in Aceh. He replaced him with an air force officer, again playing on inter-service rivalries to short-circuit the army's influence. Rumours of a plot then multiplied to the point where the United States voiced an official warning through its ambassador to the United Nations Organisation, Richard Holbrooke. Speaking in terms of a dramatic struggle between the forces of democracy and a corrupt and backward-looking military, he said the US believed in democracy, not in coups d'état, and President Clinton sent Wahid a message of support. We are no longer in 1965, when the US helped Suharto seize power by crushing the communists (2).

Climate of conflict

This is the context of the inter-religious conflict that has bathed the Moluccas in blood for more than a year. The situation lent itself to such a conflict. In the Moluccas (with their population of 2 million), where the Dutch used to recruit soldiers for their colonial army, Christians were once in the majority (68% compared with 22% Muslims in 1945). Officially sponsored migration has, however, reversed the proportions and Christians are now in the minority (44%). But the Suharto regime's economic development hardly touched the Moluccas and the natives were unable to compete with the migrant population, either in the commercial sector or in the administration. This may explain repeated massacres (over 1200 dead in 1999) that the army has been unable to prevent.

It seems that a part of the military secretly encouraged these troubles, which have spread to other regions (Lombok), in the hope of finding in them justification for a censure motion against the government. Worse still, those same elements in the military have joined forces with Islamic extremists to organise demonstrations in Jakarta and Bandung, calling on the government to protect Molucca's Muslims and threatening to start a "holy war" against the Christians with shouts of "Burn the churches". What was a local conflict threatened to take on national dimensions. As in Aceh, the president refused to impose martial law. More than that, he denounced the existence of a military plot. Firmer measures have been taken to try to calm things down, but the dispute is now serious; and with the rioters having acquired firearms, it will be difficult to restore order.

This is especially the case since in the meantime difference between the president and the army (or part of it) have increased. The conflict has homed in on the case of General Wiranto, minister of security and political affairs. Along with other military leaders, he was the subject of an inquiry conducted simultaneously by an Indonesian human rights commission and an international commission on the crimes, no doubt premeditated, committed in East Timor last September.

Indonesia has insisted that it must be allowed to dispense justice itself and Wahid announced last November that General Wiranto would resign if implicated. This presidential announcement was like a thunderbolt opening a Pandora's box. In the light of the inquiry's findings published on 31 January, Wahid called on Wiranto to resign. The general refused. But it appears that pressure on him to comply increased, including from other generals. Finally the head of state acted: in the night of 13-14 February he "temporarily" suspended Wiranto from office pending the conclusion of the public prosecutor's inquiry into his responsibility for the violence committed in East Timor. (He also announced that if found guilty the general might receive a presidential pardon).

One thing remains certain: economic recovery will not come until the political problem has been resolved. This is not only important for Indonesia; the example it sets makes it important for the whole region.


* Researcher at the Centre d'études et de recherches internationales (CERI).

(1) Since 1984 Wahid has headed the country's biggest Islamic organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama (35 million members) which represents traditional Islam (by contrast with the Muhammadiyah's reformist Islam).

(2) See Noam Chomsky, "East Timor, horror and amnesia", Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, October 1999.

Translated by Malcolm Greenwood

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