Habibie Stumbles Through: First week tough for new Indonesian leader

June 1998

(JAKARTA) - Indonesia ended the first full week of the post-Suharto era a nation drunk on reform after three decades of authoritarian rule.

The most striking thing was the sheer volume of political noise. The long-repressed voice of the Indonesian populous was suddenly released in a cacophony of debate, discussion and denunciation.

Everyone, it seemed, had climbed onto a soapbox. TV newscasts were crowded with announcements of new political parties, details of political manifestos, even the startling image of the new president out glad-handing would-be voters like some American politician on the stump.

"All the political actors, including the military, recognize that this is an era of globalization, and its offshoot is transparency, not only domestically, but to the world," observed Aristedes Katoppo, an influential newspaper publisher.

Suharto's replacement, Bachruddin Jusuf Habibie, orchestrated a montage of photo opportunities and symbolic gestures right out of a Western media consultant's handbook. High profile political prisoners were released, opposition leaders were received, and change was embraced. All of it in full glare of the TV cameras and punctuated by Habibie's rallying cry for an end to "corruption, collusion and nepotism".

Each day, Habibie found some new way to vividly remind the population a very different man was in charge. On Monday, he waded like an American politician into crowds in a poor section of the city. Tuesday he received the top opposition leaders for what he promised would become a weekly gathering. Wednesday he allowed a visiting U.S. congressman to pose inside a prison with one of Indonesia's most controversial political prisoners. And so it went.

The sacred cows of the old regime were being slaughtered by the herd, including the once-sacrosanct issue of the Suharto family wealth, conservatively estimated at $40 billion.

The national oil company, Pertamina, announced that it was reviewing contracts with 120 companies identified as having ties to Suharto, his family and cronies. Jakarta's water authority cancelled contracts with two firms owned by Suharto children, and the public added its voice, with depositors staging a massive run on Bank Central Asia that forced the bank supervisory agency to step in and take control. The nation's largest private bank, BCA is owned by Suharto crony Liem Sioe Liong and the former president's eldest son and daughter.

"Suharto and his children are ready to face investigation by the Attorney General's office to reveal their real wealth," said the former president's half-brother, Probosutedjo, whose family ties helped him attract business partners such as General Motors.

Like Nazis who were only following orders, refugees of Suharto's New Order overnight became zealot converts to the new religion of KKN, anti Korupsi, Kolusi and Nepotisme.

By week's end, there were many empty seats in parliament as the wives and children of cabinet ministers, party officials, and even the armed forces commander, resigned. The new president's brother and son also quit lucrative posts to which they had been elevated just days after Habibie became vice president in March.

"It's amazing how many people have suddenly seen the light," observed one cynical analyst.

The desperate state of the economy was never far from mind. The IMF's Asia-Pacific chief, Hubert Neiss, spent much of the week in Jakarta assessing whether to release the next $1 billion installment of the $43 billion aid package. In a startling departure from past practice, his meetings included the political opposition.

"I'm here to discuss the economic side of things but it's clear that political stability is extremely important for economic progress," Neiss told reporters.

Meanwhile, the drum beat of reform continued.

On Thursday, Habibie symbolically made the trek to parliament -something Suharto only did to formally open sessions designed to rubberstamp his decisions - and agreed that a special gathering of the constitutional body that elected he and Suharto, the so-called People's Assembly (MPR), would be convened by early 1999.

That body, which includes the 500 members of parliament and another 500 electors, must approve the political, election and legal reforms now being discussed. But despite hints that he would call a new election following that gathering, Habibie carefully avoided committing himself to a date.

"The changes of the past days are very welcome, but we cannot have true political reform until Habibie submits to a free election," said Jusuf Wanandi, one of many opposition voices demanding a new poll by year's end.

All of the weapons of the authoritarian state remained in place: Subversion laws, restrictions on the media, a ban on independent political parties, even a law requiring civil servants to vote for the ruling party.

But those were rapidly becoming mere technicalities. Again and again in the past week, the new government sought to ride the crest of change.

"Allowing only one association is similar to a monopoly and collusion," the information minister, Lt. Gen. Yunis Yosfiah, told a group of reporters who had formed a new association in competition with the sole official body allowed under Suharto. "Journalists can have not only two, but more associations."

The comment was particularly notable considering its source. Yosfiahcommanded an army unit held responsible for the brutal 1975 murder of five foreign journalists in East Timor. The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists this week faxed a letter to Habibie urging him to replace Yosfiah.

"It is difficult to see how someone with Yosfiah's background could gain the confidence of our Indonesian colleagues," the committee's lettersaid.

Ironically, Indonesian journalists appeared nonplussed. "It seems to us that the new minister comes across as open-minded," said Katoppo, whose previous newspaper was banned by the Suharto government.

Golkar, the political engine that drove the Suharto era, showed its first signs of fraying as one of its key factions announced that it was spinning off as a separate political party. Theirs was one of a host of banners being raised. Labor unions, religious groups, even newly released political prisoners announced the formation of political parties, raising the curtain on what some feared could become an era of Indonesian politics as divisive as that which preceded Suharto.

"If each of these parties only represent a small segment of society, there is a danger self-interest could eclipse the greater good," according to political scientist Arbi Sanit.

Even the long off-limits issue of Indonesia's controversial 1975 annexation of East Timor was being addressed. Habibie allowed visiting U.S. Congressman Christopher Smith (R. NJ) to visit jailed Timorese rebel leader Xanana Gusmao, as a rising chorus of international voices urged the new president to use Suharto's departure as an opportunity to find a diplomatic solution acceptable to the UN, which has refused to recognize Indonesia's occupation.

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