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Raging Inferno

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As the hot morning sun rises above the tall coconut palms on the island of Lombok, the crowd at the Mataram Public Field starts to disperse. Ten thousand Muslims have assembled peacefully to rally support for their brethren caught up in a religious war in Indonesia's Maluku province, 1,400 km away. The mood suddenly changes, however, when a small group of men wearing white bandanas and waving daggers, iron bars and Molotov cocktails suddenly ignites into a frenzy. Allah is great! the men cry, as they set off across the park. Their destination is the nearby Maria Immaculata Catholic Church: they set it afire, reducing the building to rubble.Suddenly the cycle of violence that has wracked Indonesia since the fall of Suharto in 1998 has claimed a new victim. This latest spasm brought chaos to Mataram, capital of Lombok, a popular vacation destination just east of the fabled tourist mecca of Bali. The unrest continued, sporadically, for three days. By Wednesday, when the worst seemed to be over, five people were dead and at least 11 churches destroyed. But like the rest of Indonesia, Lombok braced itself for more. THIS IS THE FIRST WARNING, reads a line of graffiti on what's left of Immanuel Church on Bung Karno Street. IT'S TIME FOR MUSLIMS TO WIPE YOU OUT, CHRISTIANS! says another, scrawled nearby.
The cost of this latest outbreak of unrest goes far beyond the body count and the scarred buildings. If violence can erupt in sleepy Lombok, what place is immune? Serious trouble has already scarred the provinces of Maluku and Aceh, and more could be brewing in Sulawesi and Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya). Where next--Bali? Jakarta? And if the chaos continues, who will visit Indonesia? Tourism is one of the country's most important foreign exchange earners, but the pictures from Lombok of rock-throwing protesters and gangs upending cars will surely wipe out a big hunk of that revenue. More than 6,000 people, including hundreds of foreigners, fled the island last week by air and sea. The number of vacationers arriving in Bali declined drastically. I'm sure that the number of tourists coming here will fall by more than 50%, says I Made Mertha, a tour operator at Bali's Kuta Beach.

The political damage could be even greater. Just as President Abdurrahman Wahid seemed to be leading Indonesia out of the economic and political wilderness, the spread of interreligious fighting threatens to derail the country's first attempt at democracy in nearly half a century. The violence in Lombok provides hard evidence that the nationwide jihad, or holy war, that some militant Muslim groups advocate could become reality. Christians account for only 10% of Indonesia's 210 million people, but they live side by side with Muslims in thousands of towns across the archipelago. Wahid's administration is already struggling to quell resurgent separatist movements in the resource-rich provinces of Papua and Aceh and to combat a general drift toward lawlessness. After three decades of President Suharto----many Indonesians are impatient for change. But Wahid and his team have done little to restore faith in the judiciary or the police, and elements within the military are resisting the transition to civilian government. Says Minister of Transport , a three-star general who is expected by many analysts to head the military one day: There are still a lot of time bombs left by the old regime.

Wahid, his supporters say, needs time--but that's one commodity Indonesia may not have. During his first 100 days in office, the President, who is known by his nickname Gus Dur, has proven adept at defusing some of the time bombs. But, as Lombok showed, he can't handle all of them simultaneously. To be sure, things could be worse. Wahid appears to have neutralized the most recalcitrant military officers, and he continues to command popular respect and authority. I think the President is gradually gaining ground, says Marzuki Darusman, the country's Attorney General. But the level of tension is rising, too quickly, perhaps, for Wahid to stay on top. Military dissatisfaction--over unrest around the country and the army's own loss of status and privilege--was highlighted earlier this month when U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke publicly interjected that Washington would oppose any attempt by the army to overthrow the government. The risk of that happening appears slight, but the warning reflects a perception both in Jakarta and overseas that things could take a dramatic turn if order isn't restored. There is great factionalism in the armed forces, says Cornelis Lay, a political scientist at Yogyakarta's Gadjah Mada University. He contends that many troops remain loyal to General Prabowo Subianto, Suharto's disgraced son-in-law, as well as to General Wiranto, the military strongman who currently serves as Wahid's Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs. The macho right wing of the military believes they have done a lot for the country, says Lay. They can't understand why people aren't saying thank you.

How dangerous is the military? It's difficult to confirm whether, as many allege, elements of the armed forces are inciting and fanning unrest in the provinces. Some see the army's fingerprints all over the violence in Maluku, where 1,700 people have died in more than a year of fighting between Muslims and Christians. The military is always on the frontline in the conflicts here, says Josy Palnaya, a Christian leader in Ambon, Maluku's provincial capital. At the very least, the military has been passive as violence has erupted across the archipelago. John MacDougall, an anthropology researcher working in Lombok, witnessed the torching of six churches in an hour and a half last week. By the time the military arrived, the damage was done, he says.

Conspiracy theorists note that successive waves of violence have coincided with key political moments: in January 1999, as East Timor prepared for a referendum; last July, amid signs that Megawati Sukarnoputri's party would emerge as the winner of the previous month's election; last December, immediately after Wiranto was subjected to official questioning over alleged human rights abuses in East Timor. Many in Maluku believe that the local killing and destruction ultimately trace to a political struggle taking place in distant Jakarta. Just listen to local parliamentarian Zainuddin Umasangaji: We don't know why Maluku was chosen, but it was probably because of the very strong religious sentiment here.

Indonesians rarely accept the most straightforward explanations. This, after all, is the land of the wayang, the shadow puppets that radiate magic and mystery. Many believe the violence around the country has been incited and fanned by covert forces in the pay of Suharto supporters--presumably to undermine the new government or even attempt a return to power. Concrete proof is scarce, but circumstantial evidence is accumulating.

Last week Tamrin Amal Tomagola, a sociologist at the University of Indonesia who has been involved in reconciliation efforts in Maluku, handed the armed forces a list of people suspected of stirring up trouble in the province. He believes that business associates of Suharto are providing funds to provocateurs. General Wiranto, Tamrin alleges, is a key figure to whom we can trace all connections to the conflict. Wiranto, a former adjutant of Suharto, was promoted over his seniors to serve as armed forces commander-in-chief during the last year of Suharto's reign and stayed on during B.J. Habibie's 17 months as President. After Suharto resigned in mid-1998, Wiranto publicly promised to protect the former President and his family and regularly visited Suharto's home. Wiranto and his former boss have another key bond: both could face trial for alleged human rights violations and other crimes--assuming that Wahid's government survives and sticks to its resolve.

Mounting speculation that Wahid is about to fire Wiranto is probably unfounded, if only because the President may not need to do so. A United Nations report on last year's carnage in East Timor is due to be published soon, as are the findings of Indonesia's own inquiry. Both are expected to cast Wiranto in a negative light and perhaps hold him personally responsible. Once the reports are released, Wiranto's continued presence in the cabinet will likely become untenable. (Wiranto did not respond to a request for an interview.) The military's top brass is very nervous about the possibility of an international human rights tribunal on East Timor, says Maj.-General Agus Wirahadikusuma, the reformist head of the Wirabuana Command, which covers the entire island of Sulawesi. We never thought Timor would attract this kind of attention.

The challenge for Wahid is to solidify the loyalty of the rest of his military officers. So far he is employing a tactic used by Indonesia's founding President Sukarno. He is reducing the influence of the army--the most powerful, politicized and potentially dangerous wing of the military--by promoting naval and air force officers to top jobs. Shortly after his election last October, Wahid brought Wiranto into the cabinet (and away from command of troops), installing a little-known naval officer, Admiral Widodo, as armed forces commander. On Jan. 21, Air Marshal Ian Santoso was made head of military intelligence, and last week Wahid appointed Air Marshal Graito Usodo to the post of armed forces spokesman. Gus Dur is very smart, says political scientist Afan Gaffar. He wants to keep the army off balance.
Demilitarizing Indonesian politics could take years, however. For three decades the armed forces' senior officers were a political Úlite that enjoyed myriad privileges, including the opportunity to amass fortunes through businesses ranging from logging concessions to airlines to illicit gambling and smuggling operations. They live in mansions on plots of one or two hectares, says , a senior editor of the daily Suara Pembaruan. Democracy now threatens to end this way of life, a prospect that must be particularly disturbing to some of the senior officers who are just now poised to claim their spoils. Katoppo believes these officers are attempting a kind of 'creeping coup.' They are trying to expand their power through emergency measures. There's been a consistent demand, from Aceh to Ambon to East Timor, for broader powers through emergency rule.

The big question, then, is this: Is Wahid up to the task of holding Indonesia together? He's a complex man, who exudes, simultaneously, the image of frailty and power. Last Thursday, he was helped to the podium of the House of Representatives to speak about the new budget, the first handed down by a democratically elected Indonesian government since 1955. Wearing a simple blue safari suit and a black peci, the traditional Indonesian hat, his right hand resting on the lectern for support, Wahid faced the sea of delegates and extended New Year's greetings to the nation. Speaking without notes but with an air of authority, the President responded to the frequent complaint that he should be more serious and not crack so many jokes. We are facing difficult problems, but we must not lose our sense of humor, he said. But after just 10 minutes he had to be helped back to his seat. On his behalf, Vice President Megawati delivered the budget speech, which projects GDP growth of 3.8% from April to December 2000, an improvement from the zero growth Indonesia experienced in 1999.

But the country's economic comeback remains fragile, and provincial unrest could kill it. With unemployment projected to reach 40 million this year, any slowdown on the road to recovery could lead to more rioting--with or without provocateurs. Even as Megawati spoke, thousands of residents of Bintan Island, near Singapore, had occupied a privately owned power plant and blocked the entrance to a beach resort. They are seeking compensation, claiming they were paid only a fraction of the value of their land when it was acquired by investors in 1991. Laksamana Sukardi, Indonesia's Minister of Investment and State Enterprises, acknowledges that under the Suharto regime people were often forced to sell their land at low prices. But he pleaded with his countrymen not to scare away investment. What's more important is the foreign investors' point of view because they do not know anything about the problems here, he said.

As Wahid grapples with sectarian violence, lawlessness, military discontent and other land mines bequeathed by the old regime, his government enjoys a basic strength that neither Suharto nor Habibie had: a democratic mandate from the people. At least now we have a legitimate government, and most of us want it to stick around for the full five years, says Dewi Fortuna Anwar, who served as senior adviser to President Habibie. On the other hand, Wahid is widely criticized for off-the-cuff policymaking, contradictory statements and a perceived inability to forge his cabinet into an effective team. Part of the problem, say the critics, is that Wahid's poor eyesight makes him overly dependent on what aides whisper to him. Yet public support for the President and Megawati remains strong. Even people who criticize him recognize that the alternatives would be much worse, says Arief Budiman, professor of Indonesian studies at the University of Melbourne.

And while Wahid's management style may be flawed, there is little doubt that he has a blueprint for recovery, as well as the stubbornness to press on against any amount of opposition. Last Friday, Wahid once again infuriated the military--this time by ordering the governor of Aceh to arrange a meeting for him with pro-independence student groups and the military forces commander of the Free Aceh Movement. That's a breathtaking departure from the Suharto approach of portraying separatists as devils and ordering troops to crush them. Wahid's strategy is to isolate the hard-core and make enough concessions to win over popular sentiment, says Canberra-based political scientist Harold Crouch. The tragedy is that he didn't come to power five years ago and start doing some of these things.

An often-heard criticism of Wahid is that he lacks a sense of crisis. But as he works to defuse one time bomb after another, it's probably just as well that he knows how to keep his cool.