Indonesia Suffers While Leader Sleeps

Indonesia 2000

By Holger Jensen

June 09, 2009

JAKARTA , Indonesia, June 29, 2000 -- Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid stunned a group of visiting American newspaper editors Tuesday by calmly announcing that he planned to arrest "thousands" of his political foes.

"Hooligans acting on behalf of Islam," he said, are waging war on Christians in the violence-wracked Moluccan spice islands. But they are merely the "tools of provocateurs and people against change" who seek to undermine his government with sectarian strife.

"On July 15 we will detain all the people in Jakarta who are responsible for this," he told a group of U.S. newspaper editors on a fact-finding trip sponsored by the IRP Fellowships in International Journalism program. "We have a list. We will detain thousands."

In any other country, such a pronouncement would have sent newsmen running to their phones: The president of the world's fourth largest nation, only recently a democracy, threatening mass arrests of former military commanders and other leftovers of the old Suharto dictatorship.

But this is Indonesia, whose blind and quirky president is noted for saying things he doesn't really mean.

Only a week before he had been promising to fire incompetent Cabinet ministers who gave him "a headache." A few days later, he announced there would be no Cabinet reshuffle. And, asked why he was waiting until mid-July to arrest his enemies, he slumped into his customary torpor and said: "It is not easy to gather evidence against these people. It takes time."

Eight months into his presidency, Wahid faces a rising chorus of criticism from friend and foe alike for his failure to address profound problems -- intercommunal bloodshed, a ruined economy, endemic corruption, a legal system so rotten it scares off foreign investors, separatist rebellions nibbling at the edges of the Indonesian archipelago and a breakdown of law and order.

But Wahid displays no sense of urgency. "It takes time" has become a familiar refrain from the presidential palace.

Indonesia is currently experiencing its worst sectarian violence since achieving independence from the Dutch in 1945. About 3,500 Christians and Muslims have been killed in the Moluccas, 1,600 miles northeast of Jakarta, in the past 18 months and the fighting has intensified with the arrival of an Islamic militia calling itself the Laskar Jihad. The death toll in just 10 days has risen by 168.

Although 10,000 troops are stationed there, Wahid has resisted calls to impose martial law, declaring instead a "civil emergency" that has done little to quell the violence.

"I have taken the policy of waiting," he told the visiting editors. "The police and the army are outnumbered. It takes time to move them around. And every time they move to one island the fighters move to another. It takes time."

There has, however, been no movement of fighters from the Moluccan capital of Ambon. The city continues to be rocked by bombs and gunfire, with international aid organizations warning of a humanitarian disaster if something isn't done about it soon.

Medicines Sans Frontier reports that more than 30,000 refugees forced into makeshift camps around Ambon are without water and adequate food. Hospitals inundated with hundreds of wounded are running short of necessary drugs and blood.

Although Indonesia is enjoying a mild consumer-driven recovery, economists say it can't last. The rupiah is worth a quarter of what it was three years ago, 36 million people are unemployed and the government has yet to divest Suharto's cronies of bankrupt firms that defaulted on $80 billion in loans. Only 2.5 percent of these assets have been sold by the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency.

In the words of one American businessman here, "Without functioning banks you're not going to have investment and without investment there will be no sustainable economic development."

What is Wahid doing about it?

"We know no one wants to invest here so we will rely on exports," he said. "We must be patient for it will take time."

Public opinion polls show that Indonesians are becoming increasingly impatient with Wahid's inability to curb corruption or bring Suharto to justice for his alleged graft and abuse of power.

The 79-year old former leader is, ostensibly, under investigation by the Attorney General's office, but Wahid says he will pardon him even if he is found guilty of wrongdoing. And Suharto's family is refusing to return any ill-gotten gains, estimated as high as $45 billion.

"We want to try him but we need proof," said Wahid. "We are negotiating for the return of the nation's wealth but this cannot take place without any explanation of how much was taken. It will take time.

"Corruption is a fact. It's true that it exists. But we are not ready to tackle it today. First we must change the laws and regulations that favored the rich. It's not easy to convince 210 million people that we mean business. It will take time

Time, however, is something Wahid may not have.

In mid-August he must give a progress report to the People's Consultative Assembly, now said to be 70 percent against him. Although there are no constitutional provisions for impeachment, the assembly is expected to enact amendments to that effect.

Wahid is serenely confident that he will not be dumped. "There will be criticism," he admitted, "but my opponents are not popular. They will not succeed."

Conventional wisdom agrees that it is still to early in his term to change presidents again, especially since the only alternative appears to be Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri. She has shown herself to be even less of a leader than her boss.

But this is Indonesia. Those who enjoyed the Suharto years still lurk in the corridors of power. The military is behind them, and anything could happen.