A country amok

An Indonesia expert says the time for peaceful change is past and that President Suharto can't survive.

Published May 15, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The world's fourth most populous country is in chaos. Its leader faces the most serious challenge to his authority in 32 years. More than 200 people have been reported dead as riots rage in the capital, Jakarta, and elsewhere.

The turmoil in Indonesia erupted last week after 76-year-old President Suharto imposed new austerity measures to qualify for a $43 billion economic rescue plan drawn up by the International Monetary Fund. Indonesia, a country of 200 million people, mostly Muslims, is facing its worst economic crisis in three decades after its currency plummeted and inflation and unemployment soared as a consequence of the wider economic crisis that struck east Asia earlier this year.

Seizing on the country's anger over rising prices for food, fuel, electricity and transportation, Indonesian students and other opposition groups are demanding that Suharto step down. Suharto, his family and friends have grown fabulously wealthy, mainly through corruption, his opponents charge.

U.S. officials said the unrest in Indonesia has become a prime concern of the State Department, along with rising tensions on the subcontinent following India's recent nuclear weapons tests and increasing indications that regional rival Pakistan may conduct its own atomic weapons tests in response. Officials say there are now fears that the rioting in Indonesia presages a full-blown revolution that could lead to Suharto's violent overthrow and further economic and political instability in east Asia.

Salon spoke about the situation with Daniel Lev, a professor of political science and a specialist on Indonesia at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Do you think Suharto can survive this crisis?

No, I think basically he is finished. And I think on some level Suharto knows that too. Whether he'll step down or try to fight it out is pure speculation at this point. Nobody really knows, and I suspect Suharto himself doesn't know.

He has had such an iron grip on the country for the past 32 years. How did he lose it?

As he has gotten older, he has lost contact with many of the people on whom he really depends, and his choices have grown narrower and narrower. Now, he's basically down to his son-in-law, Gen. Prabowo, the head of the Strategic Reserve, which is made up of about 5,000 right in the center of Jakarta. He's also the former head of the Special Forces, in which he still has a great deal of influence. They are highly trained, battle-hardened troops known for their ferocity. But there is a great deal of resentment toward Prabowo in the army because his position was basically determined by his father-in-law. At the same time, Prabowo is a man perfectly capable of overthrowing his father-in-law.

You're suggesting there are splits in the military. Does Suharto no longer have its firm support?

Yes and no. There are many officers who are unhappy with him, who don't like the way he has politicized the officer corps. There are others who resent Suharto because he put his own son-in-law, as well as others very close to him, into military office. On the other hand, the present commander of the armed forces, Gen. Wiranto, like other commanders of the armed forces, served as Suharto's personal adjutant before being appointed to very important positions. This, of course, has given Suharto a great deal of influence over them in terms of personal loyalty.

How important a figure is Suharto's vice president, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie? If Suharto steps down, will Habibie go with him, or do you think he has the potential to fill Suharto's shoes?

Habibie doesn't have a great deal of support. I think that there's a good chance that he would go with Suharto, although it may take a little while.

What bellwethers should we be looking for as the situation unfolds?

Continued demonstration by students but with an increasing number of other participants. You want to look to see if the burning and looting that are now going on are spontaneous or set off by somebody like Gen. Prabowo. Because the more uproar there is, the more likely that Gen. Prabowo will be called upon to try to put it down, using his troops. That would allow him, in effect, to sideline rivals like Gen. Wiranto and many others.

Another thing you should be looking for is reappointments of officers. I'm talking about provincial commanders, or Gen. Wiranto himself. The rumor now is that Wiranto will be quickly replaced. If that happens, that means that Suharto is getting rid of any officers who represent a reform position or in any way might be a danger to him. If Gen. Wiranto goes, he very well might be replaced by Gen. Prabowo. Under that scenario, Suharto's son-in-law would become the commander of the armed forces. Now, there are some commanders outside of Jakarta who will support Wiranto, although it's not clear that they are about to bring troops in to show support. Basically, it's the politics of the officer corps now.

Given the scope of the unrest, what are the chances that Indonesia's already devastated economy can be stabilized?

Indonesia is getting two kinds of bailout money. One is basically humanitarian aid -- around $750 million in U.S. aid -- to support purchase of rice and so on. The other funds -- totaling $43 billion -- are coming from the IMF and are being distributed slowly, $1 billion per month, according to the last agreement. Additional payments depend on how quickly Indonesia fulfills the conditions set by the IMF. That is, getting rid of monopolies, strengthening the banking system and so on. I think the humanitarian aid makes good sense, simply because it's right to help people. But the IMF support for Indonesia is a mistake. They want to achieve stabilization of the currency, of the economy generally, and I think that's impossible. The cost of trying to stabilize it in the current situation -- the mayhem and the number of deaths -- is just too great.

Is there any indication that Suharto is breaking up the monopolies?

No, he's not breaking up the monopolies belonging to his own children, nor is he breaking up the monopolies of his closest friends. One of the major monopoly holders is a man named Bob Hassan, who runs the plywood monopoly. They were supposed to break that up, but now it's been announced that it will continue. Moreover, Bob Hassan, who is not very well liked, is now a member of the cabinet.

And the tranches of IMF money continue to flow into Indonesia despite this?

Well, $1 billion has already been given this month to bolster the rupia, the Indonesia currency. That went into the Bank of Indonesia, which is headed by someone very close to Suharto. Suharto himself has a great deal of influence on the bank's decisions. The IMF will have to make a decision about the next tranche at the end of the month.

You said before that Suharto is finished. What kind of regime do you think will succeed him?

No matter how it ends, the military is going to play a big role in any regime that comes afterwards. They have long been engaged in politics, and they don't want to give that up. There is probably no choice but to use the army because the political parties that exist are hopelessly weak or fake, including the regime party. The institutions that would be required to make for a stable change simply don't exist. In effect, the whole institutional infrastructure of Indonesia has been destroyed. The courts are corrupt and usable only by the government, and the bureaucracy itself represents one big political party.

This is a regime that has been very greedy, very oppressive; it has allowed very little opportunity for anybody to organize or speak out, and the price that's being paid is the kind of problems we see now. There's really no way to bring about peaceful change.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Jonathan Broder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------