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Monday, December 22, 1997 Published at 16:45 GMT

World: Analysis

Indonesia's 'Annus Horribilis'
image: [ President Suharto at a recent ceremony ]
President Suharto at a recent ceremony

In Indonesia, 1997 turned out to be the most turbulent year of President Suharto's three decades in power, and raised questions over the 76-year-old leader's ability to remain in power and guide this giant island nation into the 21st century. Our Jakarta correspondent, Jonathan Head, looks back at the year many people now call Mr Suharto's own 'Annus Horribilis'.

After unprecedented levels of political unrest in 1996, no-one in Indonesia expected 1997 to be easy. It turned out to be a lot worse than most people thought possible. The year started badly, with outbreaks of violence in several areas of the country.

There were attacks by mainly Muslim crowds on Christian churches, Buddhist temples and shops owned by ethnic Chinese Indonesians. These incidents undermined Indonesia's reputation for religious tolerance, but the violence was caused at least as much by popular resentment over the growing gap between rich and poor, and the often high-handed behaviour of local officials.

By far the worst outbreak of violence took place in West Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. A brawl between indigenous Dyaks and Muslim immigrants from the Island of Madura escalated into a full-scale ethnic war.

Large groups of Dyaks, armed with machetes and rifles, swept down from the forested interior and attacked Madurese communtities. Many of the Madurese were beheaded and partially eaten. At least 1,000 people are thought to have died, and whole villages were burned to the ground. The Indonesian army intervened, shooting dead many Dyaks, but for a month it had lost control of much of the province.

For the authorities it was an alarming reminder of how easily conflicts can break out in an island nation the size of the United States which is home to more than 300 different ethnic groups.


Much of the increased tension in Indonesia was attributed to the build-up to the five-yearly parliamentary elections held in May. Under the authoritarian system of government practised by President Suharto, the elections are the only occasion on which Indonesians are allowed to voice their political views freely. Even then, campaigning is so restricted that the government party, Golkar, is guaranteed to win.

The only real test for the government in 1997 was to make the margin of victory higher than the 68% of the vote it won in 1992, and to run the elections smoothly.

In the end it succeeded on the first count but failed on the second. By ousting the popular politician Megawati Sukarnoputri from the leadership of the Indonesian Democratic Party, the most dynamic of the two alternative parties, the government ensured there was no challenge to Golkar. Other dissidents were treated more harshly, some being jailed for up to 13 years.

The absence of any organised opposition helped give Golkar a record 74% of the vote. But the result was marred by rioting during the campaign. Youngsters frustrated by the lack of any real choice clashed with Golkar supporters and the security forces in several cities. In one incident more than 120 people died in a shopping centre which had set been alight by rioters.

East Timor

It has been a bad year in East Timor as well. Human rights groups noted an increase in abuses of the local population by the Indonesian military, and an upsurge of activity by pro-independence rebels claimed more victims.

The United Nations brought in a new special envoy, Jamsheed Marker, to try to breathe life into the stalled negotiations over the future of East Timor between Indonesia and Portugal, but he has made little progress.

The environment

[ image: Forest fires caused a thick haze]
Forest fires caused a thick haze
Later in the year Indonesia began to feel the impact of the El Nino phenomenon, which has disrupted the weather in many parts of the world. Much of the country experienced the worst drought in living memory.

In the remote eastern province of Irian Jaya more than 600 people died from famine related diseases. Elsewhere crops failed, and food prices shot up. But the most dramatic result of the drought was the smoke pouring up from thousands of forest fires on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

Farmers and plantation owners use burning to clear land every year, but in 1997 the fires got out of control when the monsoon rains arrived late. Neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia, were covered in a thick, choking haze which blotted out the sun and made breathing difficult. The health of millions of people was affected; the damage to Indonesia's forests and wildlife may be incalculable.

President Suharto was forced to make two unprecedented apologies to Indonesia's neighbours, and his Environment Minister openly accepted that the land-clearing methods being used were too destructive. But there were few signs that the government was willing to punish the large companies responsible for the worst of the burning.

The economy

[ image: Indonesia was badly affected by the region's currency crisis]
Indonesia was badly affected by the region's currency crisis
Any sense of complacency has been banished by a sudden reversal of Indonesia's economic fortunes.

For years President Suharto has been praised for his prudent management of the economy. Indonesia was close to collapse when he took power in the 1960s, but by the 1980s it was growing rapidly alongside the other so-called Asian Tigers. Even when Thailand's economy started unravelling in July, financial experts still insisted that Indonesia was different, that its 'fundamentals' were much stronger.

But by the end of the year the currency, the rupiah, had fallen further than any other in the region, and many Indonesian companies teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

It turned out that during the boom years of the last decade, Indonesian companies had borrowed huge amounts in dollars, but failed to turn their loans into productive businesses. When the rupiah started to slide, their debts became more expensive, and some companies could not make their repayments.

The International Monetary Fund was called in and brokered what was then the second largest loan package in its history. But foreign investors remain wary of Indonesia. They have discovered that the pervasive corruption and the lack of transparency makes it difficult to be sure of how safe an investment Indonesia is.

[ image: President Suharto]
President Suharto
For President Suharto, the outlook is grim. In the past Indonesians have been prepared to overlook the lack of political freedom and the favours he bestows on his family because he was able to distribute the benefits of economic growth more widely. With the economy likely to shrink next year, he will lose the essential foundation of his political legitimacy. His health is now uncertain, but he refuses to groom a successor, or even to spell out how one should be chosen.

His current term of office expires in March, and his control of the political system effectively means he will be the only candidate for another, seventh term. But many Indonesians believe he is no longer up to the job. Their only previous experience of a change of leader was when Mr Suharto came to power in 1965, and that period of transition resulted in the deaths of 500,000 people.

The challenge facing Indonesia now is to devise a better way of finding a new leader, while living under a government that bans any discussion of the succession issue.

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