Big Loan, Big Leverage: Will West Push Indonesia to Let Freedom Ring? $43 Billion IMF Loan Is a Chance to Demand Political Changes, Say Human Rights Activists

Article excerpt

In return for an internationally funded rescue package, the Indonesian government has agreed to make its trade practices fairer and its markets more open. But at the same time, some officials and activists are wondering why the world's powerful nations seem to be missing an opportunity to help Indonesia's people become freer.

The human rights situation here has worsened lately. Hundreds of Indonesians have been detained this year for protesting the government's handling of its economic crisis and some activists and students have disappeared.

"We've never been more important here," asserts one foreign official, speaking on condition of anonymity, whose country is supporting Indonesia's $43 billion aid package. And yet his government, he says, seems little inclined to use this newfound leverage to push Indonesia toward a more open democracy that shows greater regard for human rights. Is this an opportunity lost, he is asked? "To say the least." In the United States, 27 members of Congress recently asked President Clinton why the focus on reform is limited to economic policy. "How is it," they wrote to Mr. Clinton, "that we can muster the indignation, and subsequent pressure, to reverse an Indonesian government decision to implement a currency board, but we are unable to react similarly when fundamental human rights to religious, political, and economic freedom are blatantly trampled by the Indonesian government?" And one of Indonesia's most prominent democracy proponents, Muslim leader Amien Rais, recently argued that "it is high time for the Western powers to pinpoint to {President} Suharto what he has to do with political reformation, or all the economic reforms will not take place as we want." In his 32 years in power, Mr. Suharto has constructed a political environment in which he is the arbiter of what is acceptable. His government effectively controls who can and cannot participate in politics. Publications that run afoul of fuzzy rules face closure. "What is impermissible?" muses one Indonesian journalist, also speaking on condition of anonymity. "That is hard to say. Everything is so vague, so you have to practice self-censorship." Indonesia is a conglomeration of islands of different cultures and traditions, and the government has been ruthless in its suppression of breakaway movements, citing the need for stability and cohesion if the country is to prosper. …