Fire Over Indonesia

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When the scorpion tanks clattered to a halt outside the Istana Merdeka palace in Jakarta, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid was at first relieved. "Maybe they're here to protect the palace," he said to his daughter. But when she pointed out that the tanks had swiveled their guns toward his balcony, Wahid knew that he had lost a game of brinkmanship. The security forces had switched loyalties to his Vice President, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

For a few days last week, Indonesia had an embarrassment of Presidents. Even after Wahid was impeached and the People's Consultative Assembly gave Megawati his post, the irascible and nearly blind Muslim cleric held on. "They can turn off the water and electricity, but they're not going to get me out of here," Wahid, 61, told his wife Sinta Nuriyah. But Megawati had already put the presidential "No. 1" license plate on her black Mercedes limousine. "That's fine, dear," sighed Wahid's wife. "But the people are going to be looking to you for leadership. What then?" Wahid finally agreed to leave and seek medical attention in Baltimore, Md. The family hurriedly packed their belongings, including one of the self-help audiotapes to which Wahid had been listening: When Things Fall Apart. They left on July 26.

The risk now is that Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation, will fall apart just as Wahid's presidency did. The country is in deep trouble. It is emerging painfully from 32 years of the Suharto dictatorship, an era of forced social engineering and epic plunder. As the center collapses, ancient tribal and religious feuds have revived across the archipelago of 13,000 islands; 3,500 died in the violence last year. Unemployment is estimated at 40%, while corruption and economic bungling have kept foreign investment at "sub-zero," as a diplomat puts it. Most worrying of all, many observers in Jakarta doubt that Megawati, who owes her ascension to the army, has the will or smarts to make the hard decisions now needed.

A moderate and a reformer, Wahid came to office with high expectations as Indonesia's first democratically elected President. But his sheer orneriness was a fatal flaw; in less than two years, 22 ministers left his Cabinet. And though he inherited respect as a hereditary Muslim religious leader, Wahid was dangerously uninformed about the true level of his support. Toward the end, he shunned many advisers and retreated into the world of supernatural omens and spirits.

To Wahid's credit, his departure was at least peaceful--no small achievement in a city where the practice of rent-a-crowd is so standardized that slum enforcers print up rate cards. (For $2, you get a supporter for three hours; banners and chants are extra.) The question is whether Megawati can maintain a semblance of order. She has stronger backing than Wahid in parliament. And the military likes her: they share a common abhorrence of the separatist fever sweeping through Aceh and Papua (the former Irian Jaya) provinces. Her dynastic birthright helps too. Megawati is the daughter of Sukarno, the country's founding President.

But is she up to the job? Megawati's critics say her preference for public silence masks a dim intellect. That may be too harsh, but she has few discernible beliefs other than a garbled echo of her father's nationalism and a disdain for regional autonomy. On July 22, when Wahid tried to declare a state of emergency and dissolve parliament, Megawati went to the movies to see Shrek with her grandchildren. On her second day in office, when she might have been lobbying the national assembly for her pick for Vice President, she attended a fashion show at a posh Jakarta hotel.

Up to a point, this insouciance is charming. But if it makes the military think it can push the new President around, the charm will wear off. Megawati owes a great deal to the generals, but their support comes at a price. They will insist that the new President allow them to deal with Aceh and Papua in the only way they know how--with guns blazing.

In the past few months, as Wahid bickered with parliament, the military took the offensive. Security forces moved three more battalions into the oil- and gas-rich province of Aceh; there are now 40,000 troops and police there. The army has burned villages and kidnapped suspected collaborators of the Free Aceh Movement. Often these missing Acehnese turn up on the side of the road, shot to death after being tortured. "The military is using brute force to eliminate everything in its path--including civilians," says a Western diplomat in Jakarta. For all Wahid's flaws, he tried to improve the military's record on human rights; activists doubt that Megawati, in debt to the armed forces, will do the same.

Nor is she likely to weed out crooked officers. An estimated 75% of the military's cash comes from "nonbudgetary sources," as local economists euphemistically call it, which include logging in Indonesia's vanishing rain forests, extortion and prostitution. Jakarta's red-light district was shut down in the spring of 2000, not out of religious zeal but because the army and police quarreled over the profits. Wahid tried to pension off the worst offenders and replace them with more idealistic middle-ranking officers. Such attempts at reform may stop.

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