Indonesia: Can Anyone Govern a Country That's Falling Apart?

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Yarmen Dinamika, wordsmith, is lost for words. Asked the simplest of questions, the deputy editor of the weekly newspaper Kontras in Banda Aceh frowns in concentration. It is time for Friday's midday prayers, but he is determined to find an answer. "On my ID card I am Indonesian," he finally says. "In my heart I still feel Indonesian. But that feeling is empty."

It is the same every time--the one question Indonesians can't answer with any satisfaction, the question they choke on. Some just smile and hold up their hands in a gesture of surrender. Others talk at length before conceding they don't know. A few even say there is no answer. For two weeks, as Indonesians prepared for the June 7 vote, their first free election in 44 years, TIME correspondents crisscrossed the archipelago of 13,000 islands, with more than 200 million people, 300 languages and hundreds of ethnic groups, asking, "What does it mean to be Indonesian?" The answers came in multi-hued ambivalence.

Half a century after Sukarno--President for Life, Mouthpiece of the Indonesian People--rose to power with a vision of a unified, pluralistic country, Indonesia is facing an identity crisis. Separatist sentiments are strong in Aceh, where six more people were shot dead last week, as well as in East Timor and Irian Jaya. Talk of secession has spread to Riau, Kalimantan, Ambon and even Bali. The very viability of Indonesia as an economic and political entity is now being challenged across the vast country. And while all this goes on, at the center is a political vacuum.

In Jakarta the candidates are busy making coalition deals and secret pacts to win votes, unencumbered by any serious debate. The business community is drunk on a stock market boom that is far up the risk curve. And the public has been swept away in the colorful--and so far relatively peaceful--campaign festivities, a carnival of flags, revved-up motorbikes and tribal preening that's a welcome distraction from the hardships of a still contracting economy.

In the outlying provinces there is no such complacency. Communal violence is a constant threat. At the same time there is a growing determination to renegotiate the revenue-sharing system under which Jakarta has essentially looted natural resources from the islands. Riau, for example, produces more than 70% of the nation's oil and gas. In 1997 this was worth about $6.5 billion, and yet the government's expenditure on the province that year was just $120 million. Underlying almost all the ethnic conflicts in Indonesia are economic imbalances--and righting that equation will be the single biggest challenge for the next government. New laws decentralizing some powers and increasing funding to outlying provinces were passed last month, but they will take two years to implement, so centralized has control been up to now. The task is immense: no less than inventing a new model for Indonesia--and redefining what it means to be Indonesian.

"Being Indonesian at the moment means being a member of an indecisive nation, one that cannot define what it wants," says Mochtar Buchori, a political columnist and adviser to presidential aspirant Megawati Sukarnoputri--daughter of Sukarno the Mouthpiece. "On the one hand it wants to become democratic, to have clean government, but at the same time it doesn't want to break with the status quo. To be Indonesian is to be confused about what you really want. It's a very saddening situation."

Only at the extremes is there clarity. Abdullah Syafie, a rebel commander of the Free Aceh Movement in Pidie district in northern Aceh, refuses even to speak Bahasa Indonesia--the language that more than anything binds the country together--and a young aide translates his words from Acehnese. "We don't want to take part in the elections," he says. "We won't even accept federalism. We have to have freedom." Surrounded by a dozen armed men in a secret location in the mountains, Syafie says he is prepared to die for his cause: "We are here to protect the local people. Many were killed or tortured by the military."

From 1989 to '98 Aceh was a Military Operations Area, subjected to the army's brutal counter-insurgency campaign. The rebellion was founded in demands for a greater share of revenue from the oil and gas that Aceh produces: instead of negotiating, Suharto came down hard. How hard is only now being revealed, as outsiders can for the first time in a decade travel around the province without restriction. In the village of Teupin Raya in Sigli district, Abdurrahman Ali, a 70-year-old farmer, tells how he was arrested by the military in May last year and accused of having a gun. First he was stripped and tortured with electric shocks, then he was buried in a shallow grave with only his nose left above the soil. "They did this three times," he says. "I just kept repeating, 'There is one God. There is one God.'" Asked about Indonesia, Ali raises his fist and shouts, "Aceh Merdeka!" (Aceh Independence!).

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