Can Indonesia Find Stability after Suharto? under His Stewardship, the Country Has Prospered but Enjoyed Little Political Freedom. A Recent Experiment with Limited Political Openness Could Be Disrupted Due to Deep-Seated Tensions within Society, Most Visible in Labor Unrest

By Sheila Tefft, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 11, 1994 | Go to article overview

Can Indonesia Find Stability after Suharto? under His Stewardship, the Country Has Prospered but Enjoyed Little Political Freedom. A Recent Experiment with Limited Political Openness Could Be Disrupted Due to Deep-Seated Tensions within Society, Most Visible in Labor Unrest


Sheila Tefft, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


A RECENT explosion of industrial unrest in Indonesia is shaking the delicate political balancing act of President Suharto.

In April, rioting by factory workers angry over low wages, poor working conditions, and the mysterious death of a union activist closed down the north Sumatran city of Medan for several days. The outburst grew out of long-standing labor restiveness and Indonesian workers' seething resentment against ethnic Chinese. A Chinese factory owner was beaten to death by rioters in Medan where, like the rest of Indonesia, ethnic Chinese dominate the economy.

In a country that has prospered but enjoyed little political freedom under Mr. Suharto's 27-year-rule, the violence lays bare deep-seated tensions within society that could disrupt his recent experiment with limited political openness and bring tough military action against future strikes, Indonesian analysts say.

The discontent also could spread to other restive pockets and deepen insecurity over Indonesia's political future after the 72-year-old Suharto steps down from power, analysts say.

"Indonesians have become more wealthy and are concerned that the country should not break up," says C.P.F. Luhulima, a political analyst at the Indonesia Institute of Science. "Their fear is that if developments in the political succession cannot be controlled, the country will break apart."

A retired general and one of Asia's longest-ruling autocrats, Suharto has proved to be a master politician, playing advisers and rivals against each other in the tradition of the old Javanese kings. Under his stewardship that began in the stormy aftermath of a failed coup attempt in 1965, Indonesia has changed from a poverty-stricken backwater into a potential Asian economic powerhouse that has grown steadily in the political calm imposed by the president.

Still, facing emerging new pressures for change, the president has allowed a modicum of debate in recent years. The media has been given more freedom, and campuses and independent labor unions, suppressed since the military crackdown following the 1960s coup attempt, which the government blamed on communists, have come alive with new protests.

Just five months ago, Suharto put down his critics and demands for more democracy by accusing them of using tactics of the long-banned Communist Party. But the president was recently forced to acknowledge the explosiveness of labor unrest and called for higher industrial wages although not at the expense of Indonesian competitiveness. "The wage system should not widen the social gap," he says. "We should also give attention so that this wage system can continue to stimulate the business world."

Stonewalling speculation that he might step down before his sixth term expires in 1998, Suharto reaffirmed recently that he would serve out the full five years. With his eye on a place in history, the leader has sought a higher international profile as head of the Non-Aligned Movement, a grouping of third-world countries, and host to an upcoming conference of the nascent Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum.

But Suharto, who has yet to designate a successor or allow open debate over the issue, has hinted he might not seek a seventh five-year term amid new difficulties. Although the economy is projected to grow more than 7 percent this year and exports are booming, foreign investment is slowing, the banking system is in crisis, and deregulation of the public sector and trade has stalled.

Indonesia continues to grapple with separatist unrest, particularly in East Timor. Although open resistance has waned, security forces confront younger, antagonistic Timorese who will not let opposition to Indonesian rule die.

Suharto is also increasingly on the firing line over his highly personalized rule and promotion of proteges and his family's vast business interests. …

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