Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: World: Asia-Pacific
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 
Friday, 24 December, 1999, 09:10 GMT
Indonesia's year of living dangerously

Pressure for independence for Aceh

By the BBC's Catherine Napier

The most significant moment for Indonesians of 1999 was the elections in June which marked the end of the era of authoritarian rule epitomised by President Suharto, Indonesia's second president.

East Timor
The elections themselves were precipitated by the Asian economic crisis. President Suharto had always known that as long as the economy was growing and people had enough to eat, the strong arm tactics of the military and police would prevent political challenge.

That theory began to fray at the edges towards the end of his rule but it was the collapse of the economy which forced him to step down in 1998.

Suharto: End of an era
Habibie, his handpicked successor, was never a long term prospect. Nevertheless it was Habibie who laid the ground for the two most important events of this year - the nationwide elections and the independence of East Timor.

Applauded for the first, Habibie was vilified by many of his countrymen for the second. Separatist rebellions have flourished in other areas of the archipelago this year, inspired by East Timor, and now constitute the biggest challenge the new government faces.

Collision course with the military

The loss of East Timor also set former President Habibie on a collision course with the military.

Having failed to consult army leaders before offering the Timorese first autonomy, then independence, Habibie enraged the most powerful institution in the land.

Indonesian forces forced to leave East Timor
Some have argued it was a political miscalculation which could lead to the break up of the archipelago and even the return of military style rule because it struck at the heart of the unique role of the armed forces since independence as the guarantors of national unity.

The military is now determined that other separatist rebellions in the western most province of Aceh, and Irian Jaya in the North, should not succeed. Army leaders, fighting to protect the military's power, want to resort to martial law to control the uprisings but President Abdurrahman Wahid has vetoed that for now.

Nevertheless, unless the new administration develops into a cohesive whole, it will remain vulnerable to the military.

President Wahid's party, the National Awakening Party, came only third in the elections. The outright winner was the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of the country's first president.

Megawati's supporters had threatened to take to the streets if she failed to win the presidency. In the event, the body which elected the new leadership, the Peoples Consultative Assembly, could not trust her to rule.

Golkar, the party which had formerly dominated elections, came second in the polls thanks in part to its entrenched system of patronage.

But its image had been badly battered and it was too closely associated with the corruption of the Suharto regime. Damaged further by internal rifts, it was forced to drop Habibie as its candidate for president.

Struggle for presidency

Wahid and Megawati: The dream team?
Abdurrahman Wahid, an ally of Megawati in her struggle against Suharto, was put forward by a newly formed Islamic Alliance which disliked the thought of a woman ruling the country.

In the back room bargaining before the presidential vote, Indonesia's power brokers reached a mature political decision. The votes of Golkar and Islamic supporters helped Mr Wahid to victory over the people's favourite Megawati by 373 votes to 313.

Would Megawati have made a good president? A reluctant politician at first, she has proved to be an effective figurehead for democracy but appears lacking in the political skills needed to forge a broad based administration.

Criticised for her aloofness following her election victory, Megawati made little effort to form a coalition which might support her bid for the presidency.

In the event she was elected to the vice-presidency and senior figures in her party took key economic portfolios in the cabinet. Moreover her chance may come. President Wahid , whose 59, has suffered two strokes and is nearly blind. Were he to fail, Megawati would take over, in the interim at least.

The cabinet itself reflects the deal making necessary to elect Mr Wahid to office. A variety of political parties and interest groups are represented.

The president himself has described the selection process as a cattle market and reportedly said there were several ministers he hardly knew. One cabinet member has resigned already amid reports that three unnamed ministers are being investigated for corruption.

Regional unrest

A high priority has been placed on the restoration of human rights, the rule of law, the fight against corruption and the revival of the economy. IMF lending has resumed after a spectacular banking scandal but the task ahead is daunting.

Foreign policy has been reoriented towards Asia. The president has already made a trip to China to cement a relationship strained in the past by Indonesia's anti-communist rhetoric and attacks on ethnic Chinese citizens.

But the first weeks of the new government have been overshadowed by fears that the republic may disintegrate.

Busy with a string of foreign trips, President Wahid has struggled to stamp his authority on the government. Although he is skilled at dialogue with the military, he has been forced to tread a fine line over how to deal with regional unrest.

The Free Aceh Movement has capitalised on resentment against a decade of human rights abuses by the military to organize what is now general rebellion.

The Achenese want the chance to vote for independence, like the Timorese. The military feels that unless the revolt is stopped in its tracks soon, the government will face copycat rebellions in a number of other provinces where political instability and economic hardship has led to serious ethnic and religious unrest.

The government's strategy is more regional autonomy so that provinces can hang on to more of the revenue from their natural resources and make decision locally. But confusingly President Wahid has also spoken in favour of a federal system for the republic - a sort of United States of Indonesia.

The military would not like that and even within the cabinet the very idea of such sweeping change to the constitution has upset Vice-President Megawati, a committed nationalist like her father.

The new government is pursuing investigations into human rights abuses in Aceh and East Timor and has spoken about trials to bring the military to justice.

But the Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono, has ruled out the implication of top generals in past wrongdoing - an acknowledgement that the civilian structure is simply not strong enough to challenge the armed forces in this way.

That will disappoint many Indonesians. Indeed it will be hard for the new administration to live up to expectations given that it in many ways it has to live with the past.

The military's power has already been scaled back quite considerably in political life. It will take time to get the balance right.

East Timor freed

Timorese security in hands of UN
In the back of the minds of those in government, the example of East Timor may linger, as intended by the military. President Habibie threatened the army's rule and entrenched business interests there by agreeing to the UN sponsored referendum in August.

Despite massive intimidation by army backed militias, Timorese overwhelmingly rejected autonomy in favour of independence. Then the army took its revenge.

Two thirds of the population were driven from their homes, an unknown number of people were separated from their loved ones and murdered, and a scorched earth policy left the capital, Dili, a smoking ruin.

The United Nations, which is now running an interim administration in East Timor, was forced to retreat to Darwin leaving thousands of terrified refugees behind which it had promised to protect.

Under severe international pressure Jakarta reluctantly agreed to an international peacekeeping force. East Timor has now rid itself of Indonesian soldiers.

The year 2000 may decide whether the military makes a stand at home.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
Asia-Pacific Contents

Country profiles

See also:
Analysis: The fragile archipelago
11 Oct 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Timor chooses independence
04 Sep 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Eyewitness: Timor's day of reckoning
25 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Indonesia needs Aceh
23 Aug 99 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Aceh: Still dreaming of freedom
20 Oct 99 |  Profiles
Profile: Abdurrahman Wahid
21 Oct 99 |  Profiles
Megawati: Advocate of Indonesian unity

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites
Links to other Asia-Pacific stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Asia-Pacific stories