Not over Yet

By Williams, Michael C. | The World Today, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Not over Yet


Williams, Michael C., The World Today


The dramatic resignation of President Suharto on May 21 confirmed the continuing critical role played by the country's armed forces. It was apparently a late night meeting with his senior generals which prompted Asia's longest serving ruler to conclude that he could not continue in office. Significantly, General Wiranto, the Defence Minister, has promised to support his successor President Habibie and 'protect' Suharto. For his part, Habibie, who had been Vice-President, has made it clear that he wants to continue in office until 2003 maintaining much of the substance of the Suharto regime. The absence of troops on the streets during the rioting of May 12-15, and their massive presence on May 20, the eve of Suharto's departure, now takes on added meaning. It was in effect a vote of no confidence in Suharto by the army.

LIKE SOME BAD DREAM, the end of Indonesia's second presidency since independence from the Dutch in 1945, resembled more and more the final days of President Sukarno in 1965/6 - antiChinese pogroms, the flight of expatriates, inchoate attacks on the wealthy and the privileged, a visibly ageing leader and a government acting in defiance of the international financial community.

Above all, 1998 resembles 1965 because of the absence of any clear political alternatives. Where was the parliament or even the government ? Indeed, one of the most frightening aspects of the violence was the absence of any governmental response until the return from Cairo of President Suharto.

It is less than three months since the 1,000 members of the Indonesian People's Consultative Assembly (MPRS) re-elected Suharto unopposed for a seventh consecutive term.

Strikingly the March session of the MPRS coincided with China's National People's Congress. While China is still dominated by its Communist Party, the parliamentary assembly showed considerably more life than Indonesia's moribund legislative body which shamelessly registered not a single vote against the President's re-election.

East Asia's economic crisis is deepest in Indonesia precisely because it coincides with a crise de regime. Political power was concentrated to an extraordinary degree in the hands of Suharto. As the years have gone by, he showed himself Lear like in the rejection of clear and honest advice when it increasingly intruded into what he considered family matters. The identity of ruling family with state, not unknown elsewhere in modern Asia, actually increased with the passage of time. Small wonder that the offices and premises associated with the Suharto family and his cronies were singled out by the rioters.

ORIENTAL DESPOTISM

A regime which originated in one of the bloodiest coups d'etat this century shifted from military dictatorship to a latter-day Oriental despotism. The contrast with Chile is stark. There the military ousted a leftist administration led by President Allende but eventually gave way to an elected civilian government. For this Pinochet may yet earn himself a more distinguished place in history than Suharto.

As the concentration of power has grown in Indonesia, so institutions have weakened. Not only the legislature, but also the central bank, the judiciary, and even the armed forces became little more than crude caricatures having it would seem little purpose other than to bolster the economic and political power of the Suharto family. The country's political parties - their programmes, leaders and ideologies - have, in the last resort, been managed by the regime.

Whilst Indonesia has been one of the largest recipients of Western and international aid for more than three decades, its institutions and political process have atrophied. Seldom could there be a more striking example of the dismal failure of aid to establish `good governance'. Even as the regime entered its prolonged death agonies, the May G8 meeting in Birmingham had little comment.

As the economic crisis deepened, few clear alternatives presented themselves.

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