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Western Press Review: Indonesia Verges On Catastrophe

  • Joel Blocker
  • Dora Slaba

Prague, 15 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The world's fourth most populous country, Indonesia, is on the brink of chaos today following days of protests and rioting in the capital Jakarta that has reportedly killed hundreds. Western press commentators assess the southeast Asian island nation's problems after 32 years of rule by President Suharto, whose extended family controls most of Indonesia's economy. Most of them agree that Suharto's departure is essential to a turn-around in the country's fortunes.

NEW YORK TIMES: It is now clear that recovery cannot begin as long as President Suharto remains

Under the heading "Sunset for President Suharto," the New York Times says that "the political and economic troubles engulfing Indonesia (are due) to a lethal combination of corruption, irresponsible economic management and autocratic leadership." The paper writes in an editorial: "It is now clear that recovery cannot begin as long as President Suharto remains in power. Like the shah of Iran (some 20 years) ago, and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986, Suharto faces a popular rebellion and can retain power only through the use of military force against his countrymen. Eventually, even the army may turn against him to end the bloodshed. He can spare Indonesia further turmoil by yielding office to a government that quickly sets a date for free and fair elections."

But the editorial continues: "Little about Suharto's...rule would suggest he will act with compassion or in the public interest. Since Indonesia's economic meltdown began last year, he has moved primarily to protect his family's financial interests and to preserve his own power. There was no reservoir of public support to carry him through the price rises produced by the collapse of the currency and the end of expensive subsidies --a reform demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as the price of its bail-out." The paper sums up: "The only way for Indonesia to make needed reforms is to carry them out under a new government made up of trusted leaders."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Indonesians are rushing, destination unknown

In its editorial, the Wall Street Journal Europe is equally skeptical about Suharto's leaving office voluntarily. The paper writes: "No one familiar with Mr. Suharto's ways took seriously a reported offer to step aside this week. The best guess is that any departure from the scene will be a fairly ad hoc affair." The paper goes on to say: "The smoke rising from Jakarta is a signal that some kind of transition has already begun. The only thing to be determined is what Indonesia will look like when it is complete; whether there will be stacks of corpses after months of violence, or a shorter period of managed chaos that leaves enough of the country's social and economic fabric intact for it to stagger forward again." The editorial concludes: "Some day...there surely will be a stately examination of whether Indonesia's rapid development under a dictatorship was worth the political and economic chaos that are its other legacies. Looking at the Philippines, which has begun to prosper only under democratic is difficult not to rush to judgment. Indonesians are rushing too, destination unknown."

WASHINGTON POST: Indonesia is unlikely to escape from its current economic crisis until it moves toward giving its people a voice

A Washington Post's editorial (published by the IHT today) also compares the Philippines to Indonesia under the title, "Up and Down in Asia." The paper writes: "In the Philippines the votes are being counted....In Indonesia....the battle for democracy meanwhile (has) passed a tragic milestone that is likely to inflame and energize the protest movement, and could hasten Mr. Suharto's departure from power..." The editorial concludes: "The Philippines has found considerable economic as well as political success since jettisoning...the stifling corruption of the Marcos dictatorship. Suffering from similar pillage by Suharto relatives and friends today, Indonesia is unlikely to escape from its current economic crisis until it, too, moves toward giving its people a voice in their own governance."

IRISH TIMES: The acceleration of events in Indonesia is awe-inspiring in its scope

The Irish Times says that "the acceleration of events in Indonesia is awe-inspiring in its scope, frightening in its violence, and still very uncertain as to its outcome." The paper writes in its editorial: "The shooting dead of protesters has utterly rebounded on the regime by galvanizing widespread support from the wider society. The results," it continues, "can be seen in three sets of images from the streets of Jakarta: There have been extraordinary scenes of fraternization (between troops and student or worker protesters) telling a story of popular dialogue and uncertainty about whether the army leadership will choose to part with President Suharto or put down the protests with...ferocity. Then there have been images of looting and street carnage, directed against Suharto's family cronies and their companies or in racist fashion against the increasingly beleaguered Chinese community....And, thirdly, there is the extraordinary evolution of demands put forward by the student protesters, which have so rapidly come to express the demands of Indonesian society as a whole."

FINANCIAL TIMES: There are two possible scenarios for the immediate future

Britain's Financial Times carries a new analysis of "the Indonesian end-game" by Peter Montagnon and Sander Thoenes, who suggest two possible scenarios for the immediate future. They write: "One is that there will be a brutal crackdown by the military. This would radicalize the opposition, and foment popular resentment against the local Chinese community, the IMF, which has imposed austerity on the nation, and foreign multi-nationals that have enriched themselves by forging links with companies controlled by Mr. Suharto's family." The second possibility, according to the analysis, "is that the establishment --which includes both military and leading business figures-- would persuade Mr. Suharto to step down before popular opposition becomes that extreme." But if Indonesia needs a new president, the analysts conclude, "there is severe doubt that one can be found in an orderly way. In the background, people are still paralyzed by a fear that any change could end in chaos."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The longer Suharto's farewell is delayed, the more damage is done

In Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung Peter Muench writes in a commentary: "More than 30 years ago, Suharto's takeover of power in Indonesia was accompanied by bloody terror that claimed 500,000 lives. Will a wave of protest," he asks, "now wash him from office?" He answers: "A man who fights for and clings to power so ruthlessly is hardly likely to relinquish it voluntarily. Nonetheless, Suharto, who has grown old in office, does look shattered." The commentary continues: " Suharto's farewell began with the start of the economic crisis, if not before. The longer it is delayed, the more damage is done....The first cracks in the relationship between president and army are becoming apparent. Soon it might no longer suffice for Suharto to call on Indonesians to make sacrifices in the economic crisis. He should demand the sacrifice from himself --or it must be demanded from him."

ZUERICHER ZEITUNG: Indonesia will not recover quickly from this crisis

Switzerland's Neue Zuericher Zeitung says Suharto is "sitting on a power keg" whose fuse is already ignited and "it is not clear how he can prevent it from exploding." The paper's editorial goes on: "The most important group for the present is the military. It is still supporting Suharto, but it's far from sure that it will stay that way. For the moment, it appears that the autocrat's clinging to power is just prolonging the (country's) anarchy." The editorial concludes: "Indonesia will not recover quickly from this crisis because what is at stake is not only the removal of Suharto from the top government post, but also the liquidation of a corrupt network in both political and economic structures. The consequences of decades of autocratic rule cannot be cast aside overnight."

DIE PRESSE: Suharto's power is dwindling while chaos is on the ascent

Die Presse of Vienna asks in its editorial: "Old Man, What Now?" The paper sees the spreading of the unrest in Indonesia as virtually programmed: "Suharto's power is dwindling while chaos is on the ascent. This is a vicious circle. The original economic crisis took on political dimensions; now, in turn, the political turbulence is heating up the economic crisis. The spiral of violence is beginning to be ever more threatening and to turn ever faster." The editorial continues: "Suharto has neglected to settle on a successor to a presidency tailored to his own personality, and he has also failed to carry out reforms." According to the paper, "the attitude of the army will now be decisive. Will it desert Suharto and then agree in some manner with the opposition as to how the President can be replaced in a sensible way? This will not come about merely by the (political) demise of Suharto. Not all those who have joined in the revolution are driven by noble motives."

LE MONDE: Will the army have the courage to break away from a regime that is stuck in a blind alley?

The French daily Le Monde yesterday also raised the question of the Indonesian military's loyalty to Suharto, writing: "Will the army have the courage to break away from a regime that is stuck in a blind alley and, thanks to the obstinacy of President Suharto, has finally lost its standing?....It is high time," the paper said in its editorial, "to pave the way for a democratic transition. Unfortunately, Indonesia's recent history leaves one rather pessimistic. For some, this land embodied a kind of enlightened despotism where 'Asian values of order and discipline' flourished ...It has now been proven that this model is an illusion."