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Tuesday, 24 July, 2001, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Analysis: Indonesia's neighbours relieved
Paper headlines
Indonesians catch up with the shift in power
By regional analyst Nicholas Nugent

Leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) were holding their annual meeting in Hanoi when news came through of the change of leadership in Jakarta.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab had already cancelled his visit to the summit preferring to stay at home as events unfolded.

His fellow foreign ministers in Hanoi seemed more interested in following developments in Jakarta than sticking to their agenda.

Change of portraits
Change at the top: The new president is installed
This focus on Indonesia is testimony to its importance to the grouping - and indeed to the South East Asian region.

In size and population terms it is a giant among its neighbours.

An additional reason of concern is that Indonesia commands the region's shipping routes.

Initial reaction of fellow Asean leaders to the change of leadership was of relief - that the five-month old political crisis appears to have ended.

Neighbours encouraged

The 1997 Asian economic crisis demonstrated a close relationship between the economies of South East Asian countries and all neighbours have reason to fear that unrest in Indonesia could adversely effect their own economies.

Singapore, with whose leaders Megawati has cultivated close links, was first to send congratulatory messages.

Leaders of other neighbours were close to follow, though they had earlier maintained a strict neutrality saying it was up to the people of Indonesia to decide who should lead them.

Neighbouring governments will have been encouraged by the significant strengthening of the rupiah, Indonesia's currency, as the new leader was sworn in.

But they fear political 'contagion' too and whilst they welcomed the restoration of political stability they may secretly harbour some unease at the method of President Wahid's dismissal.

Army's role

After all, this is the second time in six months that a democratically elected regional leader has been dismissed by a reinterpretation of the country's constitution and a crucial decision by the military.


In January, vice president Gloria Arroyo Macapagal - another presidential daughter - took over from President Joseph Estrada in the Philippines after a failed attempt to impeach him for corruption turned into a popular rebellion against him.

As in Jakarta, it was a move by the armed forces to back the protest against the incumbent that was decisive.

Transparency

Another South East Asian leader, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is currently under investigation for an alleged failure to declare assets.

If the allegations are proven he faces being banned from holding public office.

It appears that a new spirit of accountability and transparency is alive in the region.

Regional leaders have traditionally enjoyed long periods in office. Malaysia's Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, for example, has just notched up 20 years at the helm.


One reason all neighbours will welcome the change of leadership in Indonesia is their hope that Megawati will move fast to reunite the badly divided nation.

They fear further dismemberment of the nation. After losing East Timor two years ago, Jakarta is facing an open rebellion in another province, Aceh.

This oil and gas-rich province is close to the mainland of Asia. Any worsening of the crisis could lead to an exodus of refugees to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

'Relief'

Wahid's failure to solve the separatist rebellion in Aceh and regional crises in Maluku and West Irian (or Papua), and demands for more political and financial autonomy elsewhere, contributed to his dismissal.

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.

There will be hopes that Megawati's close relationship with army leaders will help resolve this crisis - coupled with fears lest the army be restored to its previous political role.

The mood throughout South East Asia at the near peaceful - if protracted - transfer of power in Indonesia may be of relief, but many neighbouring leaders will not envy her the task given the enormity of the challenges confronting Indonesia's new president.

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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