Wahid and Indonesia
**Hott Spotts will return July 12**
These next few weeks may find Indonesia in the news a bit more
than normal as the parliament meets on August 1st to begin
deciding the fate of President Abdurrahman Wahid, the 60-year-
old, almost blind, cleric whose 20-month rule has been one of
Since the nation''s declaration of independence in 1947,
Indonesia had but two rulers, the authoritarian Sukarno and
Suharto, the latter having ruled for 32 years until 1998, when the
economic pain of the Asian financial crisis led to his violent
overthrow. A year later, after a rough transition of power, Wahid
became the first democratically elected president.
Wahid was a Muslim scholar who advocated religious tolerance,
warning against the many Islamic extremist groups. It is easy to
forget that Indonesia is the world''s largest Islamic nation, with
90% of the population adopting the faith. But within this broad
definition there exist myriad ethnic groups on the country''s
14,000 islands and some 300 different languages are spoken. To
say the least, governing the archipelago can be rather unwieldy.
After Wahid took power, renewed ethnic fighting in places like
the Moluccas, Aceh, and Borneo claimed tens of thousands of
lives. [Those headhunters in Borneo are particularly brutal.]
The big fear, of course, is that the escalation in fighting would
lead to an exodus of people from the various islands which
would, in turn, have a tumultuous impact on the already pirate-
ridden shipping lanes, the most important in the world.
But, of far more import would be if there were a mass flight to
neighboring nations like Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia.
Every now and then you need to look at a map to remind yourself
just how chaotic it can get. Australia is a mere 100-200 miles
from parts of Indonesia. Something tells me the Aussies would
be none too pleased. [They also face a problem from Papua New
Guinea, as violence has flared up there in the last few weeks.]
Back to Wahid. While he was expected to be a leader who
would unify the disparate elements, Wahid has instead proven to
be an erratic, inept ruler. He has displayed zero knowledge of
economic events (rather important since the country never
recovered from the Asian crisis) and he has displayed an
authoritarian streak, while also embroiling himself in various
scandals that he was supposed to eliminate.
Physically, Wahid is a mess. He had suffered a major stroke in
1998, is unable to read, and would almost appear to be
narcoleptic, as he has the habit of falling asleep at briefings and
And then there are his outbursts, where he clearly shows he
hasn''t mastered the art of diplomacy, dismissing his vice
president as "stupid" and parliament as a "kindergarten."
So now the kindergarten has authorized an impeachment hearing
against him, to begin on August 1st. As the Washington Post put
it in an editorial, the process is unfolding in "eerie slow motion."
The People''s Consultative Assembly (MPR) is not expected to
consider a compromise, but only whether or not Wahid stays in
But Wahid is gearing for a showdown. The MPR has requested
that the president "account" for his 20-month rule. He has been
accused of corruption for his alleged involvement in two multi-
million-dollar scandals, yet evidence of his direct benefit has not
been found. Wahid, in turn, has said that removal would lead to
bloodshed and that he''s the only one who can bring the people
"I will not resign if the safety of the country is at stake," said the
pitiful leader. And in the past few days Wahid has reiterated his
threat to call a state of emergency in order to avoid
impeachment. Were he to do so, it would mean that all
parliamentary processes would be frozen and a snap election
held. Perhaps most importantly, such a call would also allow
Wahid to arrest his opponents, and don''t put this past him.
Legislators denounce his threats as dangerous and irresponsible.
But where does it all lead the vice president, the one whom
Wahid has labeled "stupid?"
There was a time when the president called Megawati
Sukarnoputri his "sister." The daughter of the founder of the
nation, Sukarno, Megawati probably IS stupid. She has little to
go on other than her famous name and is notorious for her weak
command of the issues and indecisiveness. Which also means
that the military is likely to have its way should she become the
new leader, and that could lead to further repression in the
So we wait to see what will happen in the next few weeks.
Wahid has been firing ministers left and right, the military is
currently sitting back (refusing to back his moves - but also not
encouraging a coup, at least), and Megawati has been silent.
Should Wahid declare a state of emergency, it is unlikely the
military will support him. If he refuses to account for his rule,
the parliament will simply remove him, as one legislator said,
"because the regulations are clear and the MPR would not
tolerate such belittling behavior from the president."
One hopes that Wahid will come to his senses and simply resign.
He still has some hard-core supporters who could cause significant
damage to Indonesia''s prospects if they took to the streets following
an impeachment. And if he calls a state of emergency, all bets are
off, though it would be safe to say that the "Balkanization of
Indonesia" would continue.
Lely Djuhavi / AP
Barry Wain / Asian Wall Street Journal
Makmur Keliat / Jakarta Post
Rajiv Chandrasekaran / Washington Post