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Wednesday, December 2, 1998 Published at 18:51 GMT

Indonesia on the brink

Presented by Robin Lustig on Sunday 24 May

Robin: Paneer Solvan from Singapore. What do you make of what_s been happening?

A: I think there_s going to be a new era for Indonesia, but I_d like to take exception to the general view being put across in the media; people tend to dampen down the achievements of Suharto over the past 32 years. Suharto has done a great deal for the country and for the region which a lot of people should be thankful for. Based on that I believe that Indonesia_s future looks a little bright.

Robin: What do you see those achievements as having been principally?

A: If you take 1966 as the starting off point, the economy, for example; inflation was something like to the tune of 600 per cent and the per capita income was a mere US$50. Today it is estimated at US$1000. You have to take that alongside the fact that it is a nation which is the 4th largest population in the world, 200 million people and 17,000 islands. I think that is a great achievement by Suharto himself.

Robin: Steve Dudley is calling from Samarang in Indonesia. Do you think that Pana has a point?

A: I agree with him quite a bit. I_ve been here for 14 years and I remember how it was then and I could name several areas, infrastructure, roads, ports, airports, communications - 14 years ago I doubt I could have made this call to you - literacy, education, opportunities, I think one could go on and on, and many times I have met and talked to Indonesians they often ask and have asked what do you think of our president and basically as we_re visitors here and we really shouldn_t be expressing an opinion, but often they push us. We say that he is just a man and despite whatever failings he has had he_s done a lot of good for the country.

Robin: So how then do you explain the very widespread popular protests which we_ve seen over the last few weeks?

A: There are two main things which are going on. I would separate them into the aspirations and needs of the average people and then the increased expectations of the new middle class in Indonesia, the more educated people. I remember 14 years before one of the elections asking my driver what_s your opinion and he told me that he didn_t care who ran the country. All he wanted was food for his family, a job, an education for his children and as long as those things were available he could put up with a lot.

Robin: Let us go back to Paneer. Stability - are you worried that the change in Indonesia may lead to more instability in the region?

A: I hope not. Singapore in relation with the primary beneficiaries of 30 or 32 years of political stability and that will allow both these countries to concentrate on the economic development, not forgetting that Indonesia for its sheer size has been very benign in imposing its views on this part of the world.

Robin: Let_s go back to Steve Dudley in Samerang. On this question about the gap between the rich and the poor, you were talking about the economic benefits of the Suharto era. There were a lot of people who didn_t feel those benefits, weren_t there?

A: I would say that_s also true but many times people in the area would say why can_t Indonesia be like Singapore. But Singapore is so much smaller than Indonesia; it_s basically a city state and Indonesia is a very large country with many different ethnic groups and religions. The people of Indonesia are lucky I was never President of this country. I don_t know how anyone could have done any better than he has done but it doesn_t mean he_s been perfect.

Robin: Engel Gunowan from California. You_re a Chinese Indonesian. Is that right?

A: Yes.

Robin: What do you make of the last few days?

A: I think it_s like history repeating itself like in 1965. It_s bad that a lot of Chinese have to suffer because we have been scapegoats all this time.

Robin: How likely is it that the position of the Chinese will change under the new regime?

A: I don_t think it will ever change.

Robin: Did you before you left suffer personally and directly from anti-Chinese discrimination in Indonesia?

A: Yes when I used to go home from school on the bus my classmates used to make fun of me, not because of who I am, but because I was Chinese, what Chinese eat and what Chinese look like and I used to come home crying about it.

Robin: Vien Sawor is calling from the Netherlands. Do you feel optimistic about the changes that have taken place.

A: It is my hope and belief that the latest developments to more democratisation and more freedom of speech will give the people of West Papua the opportunity to speak and open up to journalists. I have heard that journalists are allowed one hour with the political prisoners.

Robin: Is that a good sign, do you think?

A: I think it is because that way the people of West Papua will be able to make known to the international public the violation of human rights and the oppression which has been going on for 36 years.

Robin: A lot of people have been saying that Habibie is very much Suharto_s chosen successor and therefore not very likely to change anything. What do you think about that?

A: I think so too because Suharto appointed Habibie and he has been his long time friend. We should see him as a transitory figure. The real power is still with the army. I do hope that there will be more freedom of speech so that other parts of Indonesia, such as West Papua and East Timor can have their say too.

Robin: Li Fhung is calling from Jakarta in Indonesia. What_s your view?

A: I think that the scapegoating of the Chinese is a result of the new order and they use the scapegoating as a tool to maintain their status quo.

Robin: Is anything likely to change under Mr. Habibie?

A: I_m not so optimistic about it as Habibie is known as Suharto_s own son. We_ll have to wait and see.

Robin: Tell me what your own experiences were over the last few days. Were you in the capital during the disturbances?

A: No, I was in Bandung during the riots.

Robin: And when you came back to the capital what did you find?

A: I saw only a little part but really it_s very sad and it_s frightening because I saw many buildings which were ruined and burnt down and I saw in my neighbourhood people prepared for the attack from the mobs. They built barricades with barbed wires and found objects, anything they could find to defend themselves. But fortunately the mobs didn_t get here but it_s very scarey.

Robin: Do you still feel scared now?

A: Right now no, but although Indonesia on the surface looks calm but actually the strain, the worry, still yes.

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