Congressional group presses Habibie Rep. Smith talks tough, meets with jailed rebel chief (Washington Times)

Washington Times, May 28, 1998

JAKARTA, Indonesia – A congressional group led by Rep. Christopher H. Smith heaped pressure on President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie yesterday to clean up his country’s record on democracy and human rights, warning their support for an IMF bailout package would depend on the results.

Mr. Smith delivered the warning yesterday in a letter from 15 House members, Majority Leader Dick Armey among them. It came as an International Monetary Fund delegation was in Jakarta to recommend how quickly to proceed with the $43 billion aid package.

Mr. Smith, New Jersey Republican and chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on international operations and human rights, drove home his point after meeting Mr. Habibie by paying a jailhouse visit to East Timor rebel leader Xanana Gusmao and other political prisoners.

“They made an appeal for their freedom, and I reassured them that in every meeting with President Habibie down, we’ve said that in releasing prisoners the international community will be looking at inclusion rather than leaving people out,” Mr. Smith said.

“We want the swift, unconditional release of all 200 political prisoners. Don’t leave anyone behind.”

Mr. Smith’s letter, which was released to reporters, was also signed by Benjamin A. Gilman, chairman of the International Relations Committee, and Jim Leach, chairman of the Banking and Financial Services Committee.

The letter called for an Indonesian commitment to ratify major international human rights treaties, condemn torture and arbitrary detention, and review the sociopolitical role of the military.

“We believe that the success of your administration will ultimately be judged by the extent to which it moves Indonesia toward democracy and respect for human rights,” said the letter, which specifically demanded the release of Mr. Gusmao and other East Timorese prisoners.

“We will carefully consider such measures in deciding whether to support further non-humanitarian foreign aid to Indonesia from the United States . . . or multilateral financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.”

Mr. Habibie’s financially teetering government is desperate to shake loose the next $1 billion installment in the IMF package, which has been delayed in the face of the political turmoil surrounding the resignation of President Suharto last week.

With that in mind, the president has been working to reshape the country’s image, releasing two well-known political prisoners, setting up a weekly conference with opposition leaders and hinting that he may call new elections within a year.

“The IMF has its eyes on this problem as a criteria for how far this government will go to keep its promise of change,” labor leader Muchtar Pakpahan said after his release this week.

Mr. Pakpahan announced the immediate formation of a new political party, reflecting an explosion of de facto political freedom that is running far ahead of the pace of legal reform.

In a country where for three decades citizens were jailed for criticizing the president and independent political parties were banned, suddenly everyone is on a soapbox. TV newscasts are crowded with announcements of new parties and details of political manifestos.

The main question for visitors like Mr. Smith and the IMF team is how far the new government will go to institutionalize the changes that are happening on the ground.

“There is some concern in the West about what kind of government will emerge in Indonesia,” Mr. Smith told reporters after his meeting with the president.

“President Habibie assured us that he wants one of the hallmarks of his tenure in office to be tolerance. . . . We have now got very concrete assurances that the vision of the president is decidedly in the direction of a very tolerant society and that is the tradition of this country.”

However the government has made clear that freedom is not in the cards for the East Timorese prisoners, whom it considers guilty of an “armed uprising.” Jakarta is still fighting a low-level guerrilla war in East Timor 22 years after it annexed the former Portuguese colony in an act not recognized by the United Nations.

But for most Indonesians, the East Timor rebellion seems almost a sideshow at a time when the very system of government is still being decided.

The 200-plus political prisoners still in jail from the Suharto era include some who have been jailed since the mid-1960s, and nothing has yet been heard about a number of activists kidnapped by shadowy units linked to the security services.

Subversion laws, restrictions on press freedom, the ban on political parties and many other laws adopted under Suharto’s “New Order” must all be revoked before critics will be convinced Mr. Habibie is serious about creating a true atmosphere of openness.

Illustration

Photo, Rep. Christopher H. Smith meets Indonesian President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie yesterday in Jakarta., By AP

Credit: THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Copyright Washington Times Library May 28, 1998

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