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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek editorial

NOVEMBER 5, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 44

Healing the Wounds
Wahid and Megawati have made a good start. They must push on


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Despite his frail appearance, Abdurrahman Wahid has set a remarkably fast pace. Less than a week after becoming Indonesia's new president, he has already announced a new cabinet, notable for its attempt to balance the major political forces in the country. He has proposed the establishment of a National Economic Council to devise new development strategies. He has assigned his vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the task of managing restive regions in Ambon and Irian Jaya, while dealing himself with troubled Aceh. He delivered a wide-ranging policy address, winning plaudits from foreign investors. And he did it all with the considerable good grace, even humor, for which he has become known.

Wahid needs to move quickly because he faces daunting tasks. The economy, though improving, is still a shambles. The armed forces, long a key force in politics, have been only partially tamed. Jakarta's relations with its neighbors have come under stress, especially in the messy aftermath of East Timor's independence vote. And Indonesia remains consumed by great divisions - between rich and poor, among regions of the vast archipelago, between beneficiaries of the old Suharto regime and its victims, between Islamists and nationalists.

Given such splits, the leadership combination that emerged from the recent elections in the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) was a good one. The new president, known affectionately as Gus Dur, commands immense respect among Indonesia's Muslim majority. He is also, crucially, a balancer - and a moderate, a globalist and a democrat. That Megawati, a nationalist leader, was given the vice presidency should provide the equilibrium and breathing space he needs to sort out his government and its priorities. If the nationalists had been denied, Wahid would probably have faced political violence, distracting him from addressing Indonesia's problems.

The conciliatory touch was evident in the president's cabinet appointments too. Both the Islamists and the nationalists were well represented. So were non-Javanese, including the Acehnese, Bugis, Irianese, Batak, Sumatran and Balinese minorities. The new economics minister, Kwik Kian Gie, is an ethnic Chinese and a Megawati confidant. Several new appointees had served under president Suharto or B.J. Habibie, including Juwono Sudarsono, Indonesia's first civilian defense minister. Though former armed forces chief Wiranto stays in the cabinet as political and security affairs minister, his losing the defense post suggests a diminished role for the military in policy-making. The question now: Would such a mixed bag of ministers be able to work together effectively?

Difficult as the country's problems are, Indonesians can take heart from the progress already made. In less then two years, they have toppled a strongman who ruled for 30 years. They conducted the first open parliamentary poll in decades and the first presidential election with multiple candidates. The electoral process, despite its flaws, has managed to put the three most important reformers - Wahid, Megawati and MPR chairman Amien Rais - at the head of the new regime. Who, even a year ago, would have scripted such a scenario?

Against the odds, the presidential election produced something closely resembling the popular will. True, Megawati's party had won the most votes in June's parliamentary polls. But they amounted to only 34% of the total, which meant two-thirds of voters preferred other leaders. Wahid demonstrated his considerable political skills by marshalling a majority for himself in the MPR vote. More important, both Wahid and Megawati have strong, well-defined political bases, which give them a legitimacy Habibie never had.

The pair must now focus on rebuilding Indonesia's economy. The new president is not known as an economics whiz, but his instincts seem sound. Besides proposing an economic council, he held out the welcome mat for foreign investment in a speech last week to Indonesian and foreign businessmen. The political accolades Wahid has received from abroad should help start a fresh flow of assistance and investment. He also needs to move quickly to restore Indonesia's IMF aid program, suspended in the wake of the Bank Bali campaign-funding scandal. His appointment of the respected Kwik as economics chief is an encouraging step. Still, the former academic remains untested by government office, and many members of the economic team are unknowns.

Indonesia must work to build a new dialogue with its neighbors. In his policy speech, Wahid named his top foreign-affairs priority as sound relations with the other members of ASEAN. Beyond that, he said that the first country he would visit is China, which may go a long way toward improving a relationship that has been difficult since the early days of Suharto. Smoothing East Timor on its path to independence will also help repair Indonesia's international ties and reputation. And the world will be able to deal better with a president who has a genuine popular mandate.

The face-off between Indonesia's Islamists and nationalists over the presidency has left some bitterness. But initial riots were defused by Megawati's election as vice president. The country's two dominant political forces must now put aside their differences and work together. The fate of the new Indonesia depends on their ability to do so.


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