Indonesia Is President Waheed another Gorbachev

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at
Mon Nov 15 16:09:15 PST 1999

14 November 1999 Is President Waheed another Gorbachev? By Harvey Stockwin HONG KONG: As the tenth anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall was commemorated last week, the crucial role of one key personality was completely forgotten. Of course, the then US President George Bush was honoured -- even though at one stage he made that famous ``Chicken Kiev'' speech in which he advised the soon-to-be-independent Ukrainians to stay part of the collapsing Soviet Union. Of course, the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was warmly remembered for agreeing to a reunited Germany, even though his glasnost and perestroika reforms were intended to save the Soviet Union, rather than create a democratic Russia shorn of its Empires. But amidst all the celebrations no one recalled the leader who, more than any other, brought the Cold War to a conclusion and the Soviet Union to its knees: Leonid Brezhnev. Nikita Khrushchev had at least tried to politically reform the Soviet Union. Brezhnev saw reform as too risky. Avoidance of risk plus the endless pursuit of stability were the name of the game in Brezhnev's Kremlin. It remained so for nearly two decades as Brezhnev and his surrounding gerontocracy stayed in power far too long. As the Brezhnev Era endured, the internal Soviet problems simply accrued faster than any ability to solve them. By the time Gorbachev had a chance to take charge, Brezhnev's endless pursuit of the status quo had created a wholly intractable problem. Whatever Gorbachev did it was bound to be too little, too late. These memories of people power came to mind this week in Aceh, the province of 4.3 million people in the northernmost part of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. As a huge crowds gathered in Bandar Aceh last Sunday and Monday, one old technique of people power was much in evidence -- exaggerating the number of people demonstrating. The organizers of the rally, seeking a referendum on independence, first suggested half a million. Reporters (some of whom never left Jakarta) quickly escalated to a million, some Hong Kong newspapers went for 1.5 million, and local Aceh papers said two million, or half the local population. Two level-headed reporters in the thick of it maintained that the crowd was between one and 2,00,000. But their careful reporting was drowned out as the would-be secessionists played the numbers game with the media, and clearly won. The precise numbers matter less than the reality of a massive outpouring of popular Acehnese feeling sending a very plain message: The people were utterly fed up with Jakarta's promises and performance. Any Javanese government in Jakarta was suspect. Time and again, in response to reporter's questions, ordinary Acehnese said they didn't care if Indonesia broke up. They wanted a referendum in order to vote for independence. The basic political message for President Abdurrahman Waheed is equally plain. He will not enjoy the usual political honeymoon for newly-installed leaders. He is face-to-face with Aceh's longstanding historical urge for separation, for being its own independent self. He has very little time to play with. If he talks about the principle of an Aceh referendum -- and does not deliver, then that will be one more Javanese broken promise, making the Acehnese even more intransigent. This means that the future of Indonesia is on the line. Giving in to the Acehnese demands, let alone allowing them to become independent, conjures up the very real threat that other parts of the archipelago will insist upon equal treatment -- and that Indonesia could break apart. Trying for a militarily-imposed solution is not an option. It is precisely the use and abuse of military attempts at imposing a solution upon Aceh over the last two decades, that has created the present impasse. Like Mikhail Gorbachev and former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze faced with the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, Waheed can only take the difficult but essential decision that military force is not an answer. Also like Gorbachev, Waheed faces an utterly intractable problem born of the fact that two Empires are in dissolution. On the one hand, there is the dissolution of the Suharto family's business empire -- the tentacles of which extended to, and infuriated, the Acehnese. On the other hand, there is the vision, beloved of Suharto, of Indonesia as a Javanese Empire. Seem from Aceh, Waheed and Vice President Megawati sustain this image because they are both Javanese -- replacing Habibie, the first Indonesian President to come from the outlying islands. Indonesia faces the danger of dissolution because Suharto, who came to see himself as a Javanese King, was to Indonesia what Brezhnev was to Russia. He stayed in power far too long. The longer Suharto stayed in power, the more easily he believed that he was beginning a Javanese dynasty. and the more frequently he ordered violence as the natural military means for keeping the Empire stable. It is that longstanding pattern of violence and brutality which makes Aceh so unwilling to compromise today. Other parts of Indonesia feel the same way. There is nothing so destabilising as leaders who stay in power too long, pursuing stability. So will President Waheed come to be seen, like Gorbachev, as a man who climbed to the top of the greasy political pole too late, who tried to reform things but was fatally handicapped by the long years in which there had been absolutely no reform? Not necessarily. While the situation is very definitely precarious, it remains relevant to expect the unexpected. Waheed might yet manage to re-arouse faith in a New Indonesia, to persuade the Acehness that his promises of real autonomy and real revenue sharing will be kept. Perhaps Megawati can generate some renewed passion, in the manner of her father Sukarno in the struggle against the Dutch, for a nation that stretches from Sabang to Merauke. (That is from Aceh to West Irian, the two areas now most prone to depart.) Perhaps Indonesia's shift towards democracy has not come too late but just in the nick of time to release the Indonesian political imagination in an atmosphere of freedom, and to bring about overdue change.
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