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Thursday, 31 May, 2001, 11:28 GMT 12:28 UK
Analysis: Indonesia's power vacuum
Wahid's supporters
President Wahid's supporters display their anger at the impeachment hearing
By regional analyst Nicholas Nugent

Nature may abhor a vacuum but Indonesia, consisting as it does of 210 million people dispersed across more than 13,000 islands, is just as fearful of a power vacuum at the centre.

Unrest in Kalimantan
There is unrest in many of Indonesia's provinces
Recent Indonesian history suggests the army will step in to fill any political void.

However, military chiefs have made it clear that this time they have no intention of intervening in the political struggle that has caused the power vacuum.

They were not willing to take the president's side in his battle with parliament.

Javan anger

The army has moved to restore order in several East Javan cities - Situbondo, Sidoardjo, Pasuran and Gresik - as supporters of the president, who comes from East Java, held angry and violent street protests, attacking churches and offices of rival political parties.

The president may have been jesting when he spoke of Java declaring independence from the rest of Indonesia.

But the present crisis does seem to be having its greatest impact on the central island of Java, which has tended to dominate Indonesian political life.

Beyond Java, the central government's grip has always been more tenuous.

Provincial instability

More than a year after President Wahid removed the military leadership from his government, the still strong armed forces are likely to demonstrate that they remain the glue that holds this far flung nation together.

The president's failure to solve some of the outer islands' problems, notably the separatist rebellion in Aceh, is a main reason that parliament wanted him removed.

He had pledged to resolve the bloody Aceh crisis and to end the free rein there of the army, which is largely responsible for the serious disenchantment many Acehnese people feel towards Jakarta.

To head off separatist calls from Muslim fundamentalists the president travelled widely through the Muslim world to gain support for a hard line on Aceh.

However, he only succeeded in clouding the situation. His promise to Aceh and other provinces of greater regional autonomy, and with it the right to retain more of the proceeds of their mineral wealth - one of the key separatist demands - has yet to be fully delivered.

Diverse grievances

A similar sense of alienation from Jakarta is apparent in the other 'outside wing' province of Irian Jaya, though the greater problem there is underdevelopment and poverty. The people are disenchanted with Jakarta because they feel neglected and robbed of much of their mineral wealth.

Other islands have their own problems, such as the Muslim-Christian warfare that broke out in the Moluccas in 1999, and which has spread to parts of nearby Sulawesi.

In two provinces of Kalimantan (Borneo), indigenous Dayaks turned on the immigrant Madurese community killing many and forcing the remainder to flee as refugees back to their island of origin.

None of these difficulties will be any easier to solve under a 'lame duck' presidency - and possibly not subsequently, since the likely inheritor of the presidency, Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri, must bear some blame for the failure to resolve crises in the Moluccas and Irian Jaya.

Nervous neighbours

Serious worries about the danger of Indonesia unravelling will also be felt in neighbouring countries who regard the country as the most volatile in the region.

Whether out of fear of an exodus of refugees - especially ethnic Chinese - or from reverberations on the currency and other financial markets, countries like Singapore and Malaysia will be on alert.

G15 meeting in Jakarta
Indonesia's neighbours fear the unrest could spread
They have already this year witnessed the turmoil caused by the impeachment of Joseph Estrada in the Philippines, and the popular rebellion that took over when the impeachment process collapsed followed by the counter protests by his supporters when Estrada was jailed.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had an early taste of the political tension in Indonesia.

Linked fortunes

When he was in Jakarta for a meeting of the G-15 group, he was witness to Megawati's refusal to read out the president's opening address.

The foreign minister later explained the incident as a misunderstanding, but the foreign heads of government present will have drawn their own conclusions.

The 1998 Asian economic crisis demonstrated a link between the economic and political fortunes of the previously dynamic nations of south east Asia.

For those reasons Indonesia's neighbours have their own cause to fear a political vacuum in the region's largest nation.

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See also:

30 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: The impeachment process
31 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Indonesia braced for more violence
30 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Testing Indonesia's democracy
29 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Indonesia's problems
28 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Wahid cleared of corruption
22 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Supreme Court option for Wahid
21 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Megawati puts pressure on Wahid
19 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Megawati in urgent talks with military
30 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Jakarta protests
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