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Hard Decisions for Indonesia's Mrs Megawati After East Timor's Referendum



Sept. 1, 1999

LONDON- The results of East Timor's referendum on its future will not be available until September 7th but, given the high turn out, most observers seem to be concluding that the electorate will reject the offer of autonomy offered by Indonesian president, B.J. Habibie. President Habibie has said that in this case Indonesia will give the territory independence. Inevitably, indeed it has already started, this is going to lead to more violence within East Timor, since the militias, with their close ties to the Indonesian armed forces, oppose breaking the Indonesian link, and they are well armed and ruthless to boot. This is going to tear at the heart of Indonesia just as it is about to embark on an historic transition from a president chosen by a self-selected cabal to one picked by ballot by an elected constitutional assembly.

Thus, it is strange, to say the least, to see a triple anachronism in play in post dictatorship Indonesian politics today, in the persona of Mrs Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the late dictator Sukarno, deposed in 1967. Mrs Megawati, after her success in the recent assembly elections, is the probable front runner to become the new elected president of Indonesia.

The first anachronism would be for a modern democratic government to have as its central concern on day one an issue so divisive and so politically debilitating (for central it would surely become, pushing economic reform, political transparency, the plight of the poor and all the other pressing issues to the side). It would throw away in an instance all the good will the rest of the world is ready to shower on the new president.

The second anachronism would be to be party to a vicious civil war, in an age when perpetuating civil war is the low road to the International War Crimes Court. By the year the international community is becoming less tolerant of those who stir the waters of internal divisions. Yet Indonesia, this referendum held, could only forestall a a campaign of non-cooperation leading perhaps to a unililateral declaration of independence in East Timor by backing, as part of the army has done to a degree at the moment, the no-holds barred militias who wish to see the territory remain part of Indonesia.

The third anachronism would be for Mrs Megawati, in effect, to rewind the colonial clock. On gaining independence from Holland in 1949, the new state of Indonesia, then an underdeveloped backwater yet to begin the fast rise that would make it one of Asia's most powerful nations, embarked on a long battle to consolidate its hold over the vast archipelego that bears its name, by driving out the Dutch from their last major foothold, Western New Guinea. By a judicious mixture of domestic agitation, international lobbying and military moves they finally in 1962 succeeded in prising the possession away from the fading European power. There were many in Jakarta who argued then that Indonesia should make a bid to take East Timor, a Portuguese colony, that occupied half of an island that was already Indonesian. Yet wisdom prevailed in the inner circles of the dictator Sukarno. Sukarno realised that with Western New Guinea Indonesia had the strong case that it was the successor state to the Netherlands East Indies and that therefore the territory was an integral part of its inheritance. Sukarno was not about to weaken Indonesia's case by arguing that East Timor was included in this campaign to eliminate colonial administrative boundaries.

Later after Suharto had overthrown Sukarno, seized with hubris at the opportunity presented by the disaray in Portugal in the wake of its revolution, Indonesia's second dictator put legalisms and international opinion on one side. In 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor. But all along there were intimates of the president who privately thought Suharto had made a mistake.

Is Mrs Megawati, in what may be Indonesia's greatest opportunity in a lifetime, going to take the foolhardy step of opposing independence in the face of a clear result in this referendum? It would be an immense error of political judgement. After the great financial crash of two years ago Indonesia is now beginning to recover its economic stride. The impact of the crisis has not been as bad as once was feared. Business confidence is returning surprisingly fast. The poor who lost out more than anyone else have not been totally devastated as at one time looked likely. Indonesia's remarkable thirty year effort to produce fast economic growth while being able to lift a large number of poor out of poverty- a rare occurence in the Third World- should now continue where it left off. If Indonesia concentrates its energies on this it will leave both China and India well behind, preoccupied as these two countries are with the distractions of seeking great power status and, in the latter's case, in being bogged down in the rigid political rut of its adherence to Leninist rule.

The last thing the new Indonesia needs is a major distraction from this core task. It will have enough on its plate with the upheavals that are to some extent inevitable as the old dictatorial system gives way to democratic governance.

Of course there will be shibboleths to be laid. If East Timor goes, won't Aceh too, where separatists are creating serious disturbances? There is really no analogy. Aceh is part of the territory that once was the Netherland Indies.

This is where political leadership counts, to clearly educate the electorate on the true state of affairs. President Habibie, to nearly everyone's surprise, seems to understand this. But does Mrs Megawati? If she doesn't then, tragically, the arrival of full democracy in Indonesia may well set the country back twenty years.


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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