TOPICS > Politics

Changing Leaders in Indonesia

July 23, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: For more on Indonesia, we turn to Sidney Jones, Asia director for Human Rights Watch; and William Liddle, professor at Ohio State University who specializes in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

Sidney Jones, this was begun less than two years ago with such great promise, people raving about the prospects of Wahid presidency. And as we saw a moment ago, there was the parliament removing him from office. What happened?

SIDNEY JONES: Well, I think we had here a good man who was an absolute disaster as a president. And those people who looked to him as a paragon of all virtues, primarily human rights and democratic virtues probably should have taken a closer look at his role as head of this huge Muslim organization that he led, Nahdlatul Ulama, that had 40 million members. His role there was a leader who was autocratic, erratic, highly personalistic and very unpredictable. Unfortunately those are the qualities he brought to the leadership of Indonesia.

RAY SUAREZ: William Liddle, do you have a similar diagnosis?

WILLIAM LIDDLE: Yes, I think that President Wahid turned out unfortunately to have an enormous sense of ego, of… that he deserved to be the president and everybody should follow his every word. And it just didn’t work that way in a democratic Indonesia. He had instead to pay attention to several major political groupings in the parliament and the assembly and he didn’t do that. One after the other he lost their support over the period of a year or so.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, for all those problems, William Liddle, did he at least provide a breather, a chance for the country to stabilize from the very perilous times during which he took office?

WILLIAM LIDDLE: Well, ironically he may have provided a breather because 19, 20 months ago everybody was saying — I think myself included — that Megawati might not be a very good president. She didn’t seem too interested or too knowledgeable. But in the last 20 months I think we’ve seen her grow quite a bit. It may be the case that it’s not the country so much that got a breathing space, but Megawati got a breathing space to learn how to be president.

RAY SUAREZ: Sidney Jones, it wasn’t that long ago that phrases like “crony capitalism” entered the news vocabulary. Currency crisis in Indonesia, separatist wars. Did the Wahid presidency at least allow some stability to take hold in this country?

SIDNEY JONES: No, unfortunately it allowed very little. And many of those problems have gotten worse under his administration. One of the problems is that Wahid’s policies were so erratic that the military eventually ended up just ignoring him. One of the things we saw in the last week was that the paramilitary police with military backing went up to Aceh, the province on the northern tip of Sumatra where there’s a pro-independence rebellion brewing, and arrested negotiators whose security had been guaranteed by the Indonesian government.

These were negotiators working on behalf of the rebels. If Wahid had any say in the matter they probably would still be free. But one of the concerns about Megawati now is that the military has so become united under Wahid’s incompetent leadership that they’re going to be playing a much, much more influential role in the Megawati administration.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how should we understand the role of the military? On one level, the president, President Wahid, asked them to force the parliament out of session. They refused — at first blush when that happens in other countries, you think, well, that’s an army that knows when it’s supposed to stay in the barracks. We saw just a moment ago pictures of them back slapping politicians on the parliamentary floor. That’s not something you see in democratic countries either. Where does the army sit now?

SIDNEY JONES: Well, two things I think are worth noting. One is that when Wahid declared his not quite state of emergency last night, in fact, there was no additional role that he gave to the security forces because he knew perfectly well that there was no way they would obey any of his commands. I think that the army in some ways has played its cards beautifully over the last 18 months.

They have almost emerged cleaner than any of the other institutions in the Indonesian government, certainly cleaner than the parliament, certainly in some ways defenders of democracy in a way that the president began to seem as though he was the over-turner of democracy, completely and continually threatening to call a state of emergency as a way of maintaining his grip on power. So I think the army has emerged more unified. I think it’s emerged more powerful, and I think it’s going to have a very strong say in policy in the months to come in a way that’s almost refurbished its image from the terrible reputation it had under the Suharto government.

Which is not to say that the army has become a great defender of human rights. We’re still seeing massive abuses on the part of the army particularly in Aceh and in Papua, the eastern most province of Indonesia.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Professor Liddle, does Megawati Sukarnoputri begin life with a difficult relationship with the army? I mean almost from the moment she takes the oath of office?

WILLIAM LIDDLE: No, no, from her point of view she doesn’t begin life with a difficult relationship with the military — just the opposite. The military has over the past several months or even a year or more come closer and closer to Megawati. The problem is not for her but for the country as a whole which is really what Sidney was telling you as well. The army is much more popular than it was before. Should the country get into big crisis again, many, many people will turn much more easily, much more quickly to the military than they would have done before.

So there’s a real irony here in that Abdurrahman Wahid on the one hand was the president who was supposed to bring us civilian rule, civilian supremacy. But he’s really created a situation in his own desire to keep himself in power, he’s created a situation in which the military is, as Sidney said, very popular once again. It’s really very unfortunate.

RAY SUAREZ: During this time, there’s been constant talk, Professor Liddle, of separatist movements, of continuing problems in the economy. Does the new president, President Sukarnoputri take office facing even bigger troubles than her predecessor in some ways?

WILLIAM LIDDLE: Right. I have two views about that actually: A sort of split view about the prospects here what we can look forward to from Megawati. On the one hand if you look at economic policy, over the last several months she’s taken control of economic policy, really taken it out of the hands of President Wahid. He hasn’t seemed to have cared too much.

She’s acted in a way that I think has been appreciated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and the United States government, which is one of the reasons why I think President Bush greeted her ascendancy so heartily today. So in economic policy, Megawati, despite an ideology that she inherits from her father, which is quite anti-capitalist and anti-foreign, she may turn out to be a good economic policy maker. On the other hand, the other area that you talked about, the separatist area, I think Wahid himself hasn’t done much lately. But he at least was trying initially to negotiate a peace settlement with these regions.

But Megawati I fear, back to the army, she’s too close to the army. She’s going to be too willing to allow the army to move into those regions. And then we’re going to have a real clash not the least with international opinion and the United States because of the brutality that is certain to be conducted by the Indonesian military forces in those places.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Sidney Jones, when you look ahead into the coming months and the new president, what do you see?

SIDNEY JONES: Well, I’m worried, quite frankly, not only because of the closeness that Megawati has to the military but also there are some other concerns. For example many people have compared Megawati to Benazir Bhuto, not only because she inherited the political mantle from her father as did Benazir Bhuto in Pakistan, but also because Benazir Bhuto’s downfall came because of a corrupt husband.

Many people think that may be the case with Megawati as well. I think much will depend on who she chooses as her cabinet ministers. We need to see whether she, for example, chooses a civilian as minister of defense, continuing what Wahid started in terms of trying to reassert civilian control over the military. I’m not sure that will happen.

RAY SUAREZ: Does she get any boost from the fact that she was the largest vote-getter in the last election? President Wahid took office after receiving quite a small vote in the national elections. She seems to be a genuinely popular figure. Is there a difference?

SIDNEY JONES: I’m not sure how popular she remains. She was certainly the most popular figure at the time of the June 1999 elections, but since then much of her support among the pro reform and pro democratic movements has shifted as she herself has moved closer to the military. So I’m not sure how popular she remains. I think her policies are going to be the test of whether she can retain that mandate in the elections to come.

RAY SUAREZ: And Professor Liddle, are there any trigger dates coming up that we should be watching for — times of IMF oversight, anything hazardous coming in the very near future?

WILLIAM LIDDLE: Well, in the very near future the IMF is going to make a decision. In Washington they have given signals, when they were in Jakarta a couple weeks ago, that they were awaiting the new administration. And Megawati I think in turn was giving signals that she is going to appoint ministers and have the sort of economic policy that the IMF would like to see Indonesia have. This is going to be just in the next few weeks.

The key decision here, as Sidney was indicating also, is the cabinet ministers and in particular the minister of finance. Is the minister of finance going to be somebody who really understands economics and understands how the international economy operates and is a friend of the IMF or not? If not, and Wahid himself made some very bad decisions in this area and she’s quite capable of making bad decisions too — and if she does, then we’re going to see Indonesia tumble once again into economic crisis.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, Ms. Jones, thank you both very much.