Dickering with the devil

Without a vigiilant Congress, the U.S. could find itself supporting a new military dictatorship in Indonesia.


Peter Dale Scott
May 21, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Wednesday called for President Suharto to engage in "an historic act of statesmanship" (i.e., step down, which Suharto obligingly did Thursday), she couldn't have made it clearer that the U.S., at least in words, is looking toward a new era in Indonesia.

Buzzwords like "statesmanship," "reform" and "dialogue" from Albright and other American officials indicate that the Clinton administration believes that Suharto's departure will stabilize the situation in a democratic manner.

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But without strenuous vigilance from Congress, the United States may find itself supporting a new military dictatorship there.

Despite the calls for a peaceful, democratic transition in Indonesia, Washington has rejected Suharto not because he is a ruthless tyrant who gained power by killing perhaps a million of his own countrymen. Rather, it is because the administration believes he is now too weak to impose the tough economic reform package of the International Monetary Fund.

Washington's unswerving support for the $43 billion bailout IMF plan may leave it no choice but to turn to its traditional ally for dealing with the Indonesian people: the Indonesian army. The IMF package, agreed to last month, is aimed primarily at breaking up monopolies, many of which are controlled by Suharto's family, and at privatizing state-run industries. But although subsidies for food staples were allowed to continue, there have been price rises -- which triggered massive rioting -- increases in unemployment and in some cases starvation. It is hard to imagine any democratic government with the desire, let alone the ability, to continue with such hardships.

The Indonesian army itself is polarizing around two conflicting responses to the public protests. Defense Minister Gen. Wiranto has threatened publicly to crack down on student demonstrations, but a faction around him is said to be quietly supportive of the protests and may even be encouraging them as a means of persuading Suharto to resign.

A more repressive faction, linked to Suharto's son-in-law, Gen. Prabowo, is reported to have taken steps to foment more violence. In particular, Prabowo has backed a propaganda campaign designed to scapegoat the ethnic Chinese as a source of economic gouging, rather than pointing to the $40 billion family fortune of Suharto (reportedly the world's sixth richest man) and his cronies like Prabowo himself.

Some army elements have taken the lead in exciting anti-Chinese violence, according to several reports from the country, even trucking in rioters in some cases. These actions, reminiscent of the army-inspired rioting in 1965, would serve the interests of those who believe that their own political future will not survive Suharto's. They see violence as a way to preempt a peaceful campaign to expel the president.

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The U.S. military role in Indonesia has been small in recent years. But the CIA and Pentagon have had close links to both Wiranto and Prabowo. Secretary of Defense William Cohen visited both in January and spent three hours with Prabowo reviewing the dreaded Kopassus Red Berets, the special forces who have massacred thousands in East Timor.

Videotapes of one such massacre roused Congress to terminate U.S. military training programs in Indonesia by law in 1992. A loophole in the law allowed the Pentagon to continue quietly to train Kopassus and other units until May 9 of this year, when protests from Congress led to the announced suspension of all training programs for the Indonesian army.

Of course, Washington would prefer a peaceful transition. But the Indonesian army has ignored U.S. appeals for "restraint" in the past and has not been penalized.

Can Congress prevent another outbreak of slaughter? There is, now, a strong human rights lobby, including groups like the East Timor Action Network, which has moved Congress to modify U.S. support for terror and death squads, in Indonesia and elsewhere.

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If Congress hopes to see a more democratic Indonesia, it will have to establish political conditions for all U.S. aid, including aid dispensed through the IMF. The IMF bailout package, at $40 billion, is about equal to the Suharto family fortune -- which suggests that the rich, not the poor, should make the sacrifices necessary to restart the Indonesian economy.

These conditions should include liberalized rights to speech and organizing, holding democratic elections as soon as possible and an internationally supervised referendum on the issue of East Timorese independence.

With such pressure, Indonesia could move toward democracy as have the Philippines and South Korea. Without it, Indonesia will remain a polarized society that can be pacified only by a ruthless military.

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Peter Dale Scott

Pacific News Service commentator Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat, has authored numerous books and articles on U.S. foreign affairs.

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