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Ethnic and Political Crisis in Indonesia

Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid must race against time to prevent centrifugal forces from pulling his country to pieces.

by Bertil Lintner

Two weeks of ethnic violence in the heart of Borneo in February was the latest- but probably not the last - reminder of how fragile president Abdurrahman Wahid's 17-month-old government has become. That hundreds of Madurese migrants were butchered by Dayak tribesmen was tragic enough, but the lack of assertive action on the part of the government was almost equally disturbing. On February 22, when the violence was at its peak, Wahid chose to leave Indonesia to travel to the Middle East, and to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. His vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri - who has been given the task of settling ethnic disputes - did not go to the area for twelve days, and when she eventually did, she was met by desperate refugees who begged her to help them. She spoke for about an hour to the refugees, and then returned to Jakarta.

With ethnic violence escalating everywhere, and separatist movements growing in Aceh in northern Sumatra and in Irian Jaya, the western part of New Guinea, the question is being raised whether Indonesia can survive. Those who believe Indonesia is bound to disintegrate argue that it is, like Yugoslavia, also a new artificial nation lacking firm historical roots. Indonesia comprises 13,677 islands stretching over a distance from east to west that is approximately the same as from London to Baghdad; its 210 million people speak more than 300 different languages - and their only common history is a Dutch colonial past. The old strongman, General Suharto, managed to keep the country together by brutal means, but as soon as he fell from power in May 1998, the institutions that he had built up also began to crumble. There may even be lessons for Burma's pro-democracy movement here - and it is worth remembering that Burma's generals only a few years ago began to talk about "the Indonesian model." Now, that model is gone, and the State Peace and Development Council may be even less willing to consider some kind of power sharing after watching what appears to be the beginning of the disintegration of Indonesia, and the way in which many old army officers there have been disgraced in the wake of the democratization of that country.

However, Olle Tornquist, a Swedish Indonesia expert at Oslo University in Norway who has followed efforts at democratization in Indonesia since the early 1970s, argues that the process of decentralization- and the re-emergence of various separatist movements- does not have to lead to the disintegration of the country. Rather, as in the Philippines, the fall of Ferdinand Marcos' authoritarian regime in 1986 and attempts at restoring democracy will inevitably lead to decentralization of politics and administration, as well as privatization and deregulation of business. Together, Tornquist argues, this will "pave the way for local bosses [to become] local powerbrokers who, within a democratic framework, enjoy a monopolistic position over coercive and economic resources within their bailiwicks."

The Philippines is different, of course, as it is characterized by the legacy of American colonialism, partially elected governments, and traditionally more private control of resources than in Indonesia. But the post-authoritarian restructuring- and trauma- is very similar.

Wahid's challenge is to find a new constitutional framework that fits this new situation without upsetting the delicate balance between the center and outlying islands and provinces. "If decentralization is underdone, the separatist sentiment in resource-rich provinces will escalate. If decentralization is overdone, the central government will lose the capacity to smoothen revenue differentials across the country and the provincial rich-poor gap will increase dramatically," says US Indonesia specialist Adam Schwarz. "The other major issue is religion.

Wahid's view of tolerant, inclusivist Islam must prevail if Indonesia's religious mosaic is to hold together. If it doesn't, pockets of separatism, especially in the East, will grow. I suspect Indonesia will move toward a de facto federal system, though it won't be called that. I doubt Jakarta can get away with less in the cases of Aceh, Papua and perhaps a few others."

A Regional Autonomy Bill was passed already on April 22, 1999, when Suharto's immediate successor, B.J. Habibie, was still the president. He promised more power, and government funds, to the provinces. Wahid may be willing to go even further, and create real autonomous provinces, which would mean at least a partial return to the principles under which Indonesia was actually founded 50 years ago. Independence from the Netherlands was declared on 17 August 1945, but not recognized by the colonial power until November 1949, when "the Republic of the United States of Indonesia" was formally established as a federation of fifteen autonomous states. On 17 August 1950, the federal concept was abandoned in favor of a unitary state, which today contains 26 provinces (the 27th province, East Timor, was allowed to secede after a referendum in August 1999). B.J. Habibie's predecessor, Gen. Suharto, was always a staunch opponent to regional autonomy.

But will the new policies work? Is reconciliation really possible after so many years of violence and brutality? Is Wahid's political approach coming too late? And will other issues, such as corruption scandals and inability to contain spontaneous ethnic violence overshadow his efforts - and perhaps even result in a return to authoritarian rule, where the military once again will become a predominant player? These issues are being hotly debated in Indonesia right now.

In order to understand Indonesia's present problems, it is important to remember how the country was created. The term "Indonesia" was first used to describe the Dutch East Indies when in 1923 a group of young nationalists in the Netherlands under the leadership of an economics student, Mohammad Hatta, changed the name of the old student organization, Indische Vereeniging, to Perhimpunan Indonesia (PI, Indonesian Association). The new name Indonesia - Greek for "the Indian islands" - followed the same pattern as Melanesia ("the Black Islands"), Polynesia ("Many Islands") and Micronesia ("the Small Islands") and was basically an anthropological term. In 1927, Megawati's father and the founder of modern Indonesia, Sukarno, and his General Debating Club followed suit and established the Perserikatan Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian Nationalist Unity, later "Partai", the Indonesian Nationalist Party).

But despite Indonesia's diversity and shaky foundations, more then fifty years of independence has created a sense of nationhood that should not be underestimated. One of the masterstrokes of Indonesia's founders was not to make the language spoken by the vast majority of the people- Javanese - the country's official language. Had that been the case, Indonesia would more than now have been seen as "Java with outlying colonies" - and it could have faced insurgencies of the magnitude that is still plaguing Burma, where the majority language - Burmese - has been imposed on minority peoples.

Instead, the early Indonesian nationalists promoted Malay - a language of northern Sumatra, which in the 1920s no more than 4.9% of the population spoke as their native tongue. But Malay was the trading language of the ports, and it was also spoken in what is today Malaysia across the Straits of Malacca. Renamed "Bahasa Indonesia" (bahasa = language), Malay became the sole national language of Indonesia, and it has over the years become the common language of the archipelago. According to a 1990 government survey, only 15% of the population used Bahasa Indonesia for everyday communication, but 68% could speak the language fluently while 17% did not understand Bahasa Indonesia at all. The Central Bureau of Statistics' projections for the year 2010 are that all Indonesians over the age of five will be able to understand Bahasa Indonesia with varying degrees of proficiency.

Cultural affinities do also exist between the islands due to centuries of trade, commerce and travel - and nationalism has been almost a state ideology since Indonesia was founded. There has also been freedom of religion and the argument against an Islamic state in Indonesia - despite the fact that 87.2% are Muslims - has been that it would break up national unity as well as national identity and alienate the 6% of the population who are Protestants, the 3.5% Catholics, the 2% Hindus, and the 1% Buddhists. The island of Bali is predominantly Hindu, there are Protestants in the Batak area of North Sumatra and among the Toraja of South Sulawesi, and Catholics in most cities - many of whom are Chinese - as well as in the eastern islands of Nusa Tenggara.

But even so, separatist movements are, or have been, active in several parts of the country:

East Timor

East Timor was not part of the original Indonesia, nor did the Indonesian government claim the territory until the mid-1970s. Indonesia, according to the initial concept, comprised only the islands of the former Dutch East Indies - and East Timor had been under Portuguese rule since the 16th century, even before the arrival of the Dutch. The situation changed after the revolution in Portugal in 1974, when its African colonies gained independence.

Portuguese Timor, too, saw the emergence of independence movements, notably Frente Revolucionaria de Timor Leste Independente, or FRETILIN (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor). Like its African equivalents, it had clear leftist leanings, which worried Indonesia's then rightist government under Gen. Suharto - and the Americans, who earlier in 1975 had seen its former allies in Indochina fall to the communists.

On 28 November 1975, East Timor was declared an independent "democratic republic" - and Indonesia invaded the territory on 7 December, most probably encouraged by the United States; US President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had paid a visit to Jakarta on 5-6 December. But the annexation, which followed in July 1976, was never recognized by the United Nations. And the East Timor issue continued to be a major problem for Indonesia both internationally and internally as FRETILIN guerrilla units continued their resistance to the occupation.

There is no doubt that the Indonesian army's brutality in East Timor helped foster a new national identity in the territory. Under colonial rule, it had been the remotest and most neglected part of the Portuguese empire. The literacy rate was less than 10% and only 30% of the population were actually Christians. The local people spoke 16 different tribal dialects, and only a tiny, educated elite had some Portuguese. However, the Roman Catholic Church emerged as the focal point for the resistance, and a refuge from repression and hardships. As a result, 90% of the East Timorese today are Roman Catholics. The language of the church was Tetum, the local language into which the Bible had been translated. Consequently, it became the territory's lingua franca, and a local alternative to Bahasa Indonesia, which underlined the separate identity of the East Timorese. Portuguese remained the language of the resistance, although only some old people in the territory can still speak it.

It is unclear why the former government of B.J. Habibie in early 1999 agreed to hold a referendum to decide East Timor's future. Most observers believe that he thought that it was the only way to get the East Timor issue off the UN's agenda - and that he, and other civilian and military powerholders in Jakarta, grossly misjudged local discontent with Indonesian rule. Indonesian observers at the time speculated that the outcome would be in Indonesia's favor, or perhaps 50-50 - but an 80% vote for independence came as a complete shock to Jakarta.

The Indonesian leaders also misjudged the sentiments of the international community - which unanimously condemned the carnage that the military unleashed in East Timor after the vote. Indonesia was on the brink of becoming a pariah state at a time when it badly needed international assistance to prop up its crisis-ridden economy. It was forced to withdraw - and to accept international peacekeepers under a UN mandate.

The long-term implications of the loss of East Timor are difficult to gauge. According to one school of thought, it does not jeopardize Indonesia's unity, as East Timor has always been a separate case. Critics, however, argue that Indonesia may have made the same mistake as the former Yugoslavia did when it agreed to let Slovenia become independent in June 1991 - letting one part of the country go in order to save the rest - but, by so doing, setting in motion a process of disintegration which the central authorities were unable to stop. And there is little doubt that the terror of the violent reaction of the Indonesian military to the outcome of last year's referendum was meant as a clear signal to other provinces where large segments of the population also want to break away.


Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra was the first province where demands for a referendum were raised in earnest after the vote in East Timor. Millions of people have rallied in support of such a referendum also in Aceh, and an end to military violence which since 1988 has claimed 30,000 lives, according to the pro-independence movement. Last year, Indonesia's National Commission for Human Rights was able to confirm the death of 1,021 people and the disappearance of another 864, but the figure is rising rapidly as more violence has engulfed the province.

Once an independent sultanate with diplomatic relations with other Muslim countries in Asia, Aceh was conquered by the Dutch in the late 19th century, but resistance continued for many more years. Aceh was also at the forefront of the war of resistance against the Dutch in the 1940s, and although Indonesia became a unitary state in 1950, Aceh was promised "special territory status" in 1959. Demands for separation from Indonesia were raised, armed resistance broke out - which at one stage in the 1950s was supported clandestinely by America's Central Intelligence Agency - but it was not until 4 December 1976 that Hasan di Tiro, a descendant of the old sultans who had just returned from exile in the United States, declared Aceh an independent state. In early 1979, di Tiro left Aceh for exile in Stockholm, Sweden, while his Aceh-Sumatra National Liberation Front, or Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM; Free Aceh Movement) continued its guerrilla campaign from jungle hideouts in the province. In the 1980s, an undisclosed number of GAM soldiers (di Tiro claims as many as 3,000) were trained in Libya, but that connection appears to have been severed as the movement now is trying to canvass support from the West for its struggle for an independent Aceh.

Today, Aceh poses the most serious challenge to Indonesia's unity. GAM is stronger, and much better armed, than any other separatist group in the country. Some wealthy Achenese businessmen in Malaysia and Thailand are said to contribute money to the war effort, and modern weapons have been obtained on the black arms market in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, it has not been forgotten that the territory is one of the few parts of Indonesia that was actually for centuries an independent state. But the movement is divided into two factions, one led by the now 76-year-old di Tiro, who has ruled out any compromise with Jakarta, and the other by the somewhat younger Dr. Husaini, who is seen as more willing to negotiate with the Indonesian authorities. President Wahid has extended several olive branches to the Aceh militants, offering negotiations and to investigate human-rights abuses. But di Tiro has so far have rejected all his overtures and insisted that there is nothing to talk about: "There'll be no solution until and unless the Javanese occupation army leaves Aceh," he told this correspondent in an interview in Stockholm in July 1999. For Indonesia, Aceh is important, not only because of the focal role it played in the struggle for independence - if it broke away, Indonesia would suffer a severe psychological blow - but also because the province is enormously rich in oil and gas. Wahid has pledged to allow the province to retain more of the profits from industry, but even that has failed to placate di Tiro and other hard-line independence advocates.

Irian Jaya/West Papua

The western, Indonesian half of New Guinea comprises 418,000 square kilometers, and of its 1.8 million people 50% are indigenous Papuans and 50% Indonesians from other islands. The West Papuans are Melanesians and are composed of about 240 different peoples - each with its own language - and their historical, cultural and social ties with the rest of the country have always been tenuous.

The western half of New Guinea was occupied by the Dutch in the mid-19th century, and incorporated in the East Indies in 1901. The eastern half was divided between the Germans and the British in 1884, with Australia taking over the British part after World War One, along with a League of Nations mandate over the former German colony (which became a UN trusteeship after World War Two). Eastern New Guinea was granted independence in 1975 as Papua New Guinea, which has served as an inspiration for the western half as well.

But political developments in western New Guinea have always been rockier than on the eastern half. When the Dutch in November 1949 agreed to transfer sovereignty to Sukarno's Indonesian government, it was decided to negotiate the future of western New Guinea the following year. But no such negotiations were held as Indonesia and the Netherlands differed in their perception of the territory's status. As a part of the former Dutch East Indies, the Indonesians claimed New Guinea as part of their republic, while the Dutch argued that geographically, racially, culturally and historically it was different from the rest of the archipelago.

On 1 December 1961, some Papuan leaders declared independence while the territory was still under Dutch rule. This may have prompted the Indonesians to form a special force, "the Mandala Command", in January 1962 to "liberate" the territory. Skirmishes erupted and the crisis was resolved only when UN Secretary General U Thant convinced the Dutch to negotiate. The outcome was that an interim UN administration took over in August, which led to the territory's being turned over to Indonesian sovereignty on 1 May 1963. In 1969, Indonesia's annexation was ratified in an exercise called "the Act of Free Choice" - a "referendum" which involved only 1,025 handpicked Papuans.

The new province, sparsely populated but by far the largest in Indonesia, became an early destination for the government's transmigrasi program, according to which people from overpopulated Java were encouraged to migrate to outlying islands. The massive influx of "outsiders" caused resentment among the native population. Armed resistance began in the mid-1960s, and, in 1969, the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM; the Organization for Papua's Independence) was formed to coordinate the struggle against Indonesian rule. The response was the same as in other parts of the country: military action, arbitrary arrests and disappearances of suspected independence activists - which resulted in even more local discontent.

In 1973 western New Guinea was renamed "Irian Jaya", or "the Victorious Irian", but in a conciliatory move, Wahid agreed to change the name of the province to Papua in January last year (a promise that was ignored by Indonesia's National Assembly, which has to approve of any change in the constitution). During a visit to the provincial capital of Jayapura, he also publicly apologized for years of repression and human rights abuses. Wahid's statement came in the wake of massive demonstrations in Jayapura and elsewhere to celebrate the 38th anniversary of the 1961 declaration of independence. An estimated 800,000 people took part in the events, and the OPM's flag with the Morning Star was hoisted all over the territory as rival factions of the movement finally agreed to cooperate in the struggle for independence.

The Papuans, who feel much closer to their Melanesian brothers in the east than the Javanese in the west, have made several appeals to the South Pacific Forum, which groups 16 countries - Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and more than a dozen Pacific island states. In an article which was published in the December 1999 issue of the Suva-based monthly Islands Business, exiled OPM leader Otto Ondawame stated: "We, the West Papuans, hope that one day we (with the help of the Pacific Islands nations and others) will be able to fly our flag as a member of the South Pacific Forum. All we ask for is the opportunity to determine our own future."

But Indonesia has strong reasons to retain Papua. The province is rich in timber, copper and gold. The biggest mine, at Grasberg, is run by Freeport Indonesia, a private company, and is one of the country's most profitable businesses. After smelting, the copper and the gold are worth an estimated US$2 billion a year. The 1999 revenues of the mine operator's parent company, the New Orleans-based Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. are forecast at US$1.6 billion. The Indonesian military still guards the opencast mine, in which the government has a 9% stake.

The Moluccas (Maluku)

The approximately 1,000 islands of the Moluccas spread across 850,000 square kilometers, of which only 10% are land, between Sulawesi, Timor and New Guinea. Also known as "the Spice Islands" they were the first of the present Indonesian islands to attract large numbers of Chinese, Portuguese, British and Dutch merchants. Until the 18th century, the tiny Banda Islands near Ambon, the most important, but not the biggest, island in the archipelago, were the world's only known source of nutmeg and mace. Before the arrival of the Europeans, most of the Spice Islands were ruled by local rajas, many of whom were Muslim. The Portuguese, however, introduced Catholicism, and Dutch rule, which was firmly established in the early 19th century, led to the conversion to Calvinism of many Ambonese especially.

Christianity made the Ambonese more loyal colonial subjects than the Muslim Javanese, the majority population in the Dutch East Indies. Consequently, when in 1830 the Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger (KNIL), or the Royal Netherlands Indies Army, was founded it consisted almost entirely of Ambonese and other Moluccans. Many Moluccans identified themselves with the Dutch, which prompted nationalist Javanese to brand them anjing-anjing Belanda, or "the dogs of the Dutch."

Indonesia's independence was a dilemma for many Moluccans, and many feared retribution from the Javanese. On 25 April 1950, local leaders proclaimed the independent "Republik Maluku Selatan" (RMS, the South Moluccan Republic) comprising Ambon, Seram, Buru and more than 100 smaller islands. Armed RSM supporters clashed with Indonesian troops, and the conflict became potentially even more explosive as the Netherlands began to demobilize the KNIL - and it was feared that many Ambonese would defect to join the RSM. Thirty-five thousand former KNIL soldiers, and their families, were evacuated to the Netherlands. Many believed that the transfer was temporary, and that they would be able to return to the South Moluccas to fight for independence. But fifty years later, tens of thousands of people of South Moluccan descent remain in the Netherlands, where the independence movement has been kept alive.

It reached a crisis point when in 1966 the Indonesian government executed Soumokil, one of the original founders of the RSM, and his followers set fire to the Indonesian embassy in The Hague. Frustrations among the Moluccans in the Netherlands escalated even further when a group of young South Moluccans hi-jacked a train in the Netherlands on 2 December 1975. For the next 12 days the passengers were held hostage by the militants, who wanted draw attention to their cause. On 23 May 1977, a second train was hi-jacked - which two weeks later was stormed by Dutch commandos, resulting in the death of several Moluccans and a hostage.

But despite such movements among the exiles, peace seemed to prevail on the Moluccan islands - until last year. Bloody clashes erupted between Christians and Muslims all over the Moluccas and an estimated 5,000 people were killed in the mayhem. By the end of 1999, the Moluccas were on the verge of civil war - and Islamic militants in Jakarta called for a jihad, or holy war, to support their Muslim brethren on the islands. In January, security forces mounted a massive sweep for illegal weapons, as reports were reaching Jakarta that various armed gangs on the Moluccas had bought guns from East Timor's disgraced, pro-Indonesian militias, which were about the be demobilized.

The roots of the conflict in the Moluccas can be traced back to the religious divide on the islands. "If the Governor was a Christian, all strategic positions were filled by Christians," said Tamrin Tamagola, a sociologist and native Ambonese living in Jakarta to Indonesia Political Watch, a risk-analysis newsletter, in March 1999. The situation began to deteriorate when a Christian, Col. Dicky Watimena, was serving as Mayor of the City of Ambon from 1985 to 1991. He subdued areas controlled by Muslim migrants from Sulawesi and it was this influx of "new Muslims" from other areas of the archipelago that upset the delicate religious balance on some of the Moluccan islands.

The situation was reversed when a Muslim, Mohammad Akib Latuconsina, became governor of the province in 1992. Suddenly, Muslims, including newcomers, replaced all-important positions in the administration traditionally filled with Christians. Fights among Christian and Muslim youth gangs erupted - and a few years later, Ambon was ready to explode. Indonesia's economic crisis has made the cake smaller, and competition for jobs and business opportunities fiercer. Although a semblance of peace and order has returned to the Moluccas, it remains one of Indonesia's potentially most explosive powder kegs - and many Ambonese have begun to revive the old dream of an independent Christian republic on the islands.


In April 1999, a crowd of 1,500 people gathered in front of a Caltex housing complex near Pekanbaru in oil-rich Riau on Sumatra to demand that the government honor a promise to deliver 10% of all oil revenues back to the province, or they would start to fight for independence.

Asia's largest oil field, Caltex-operated Minas, is situated in Riau. Together with the likewise Caltex-operated, nearby Duri field, it contributes 15% of Indonesia's revenues, but local activists claim that the province receives a mere 0.02% of its contributions in return through the national development budget.

On the other hand, Riau has benefited from inclusion in the so-called Sijori (Singapore-Johore-Riau) Growth Triangle. The boom islands of Batam and Bintan especially have managed to attract considerable amounts of investment from Singapore, which is only a 40-minute ferry ride away. Demands for separation from Indonesia are new in Riau, a province of three million people, and it is quite possible that local autonomy, and a fairer share of oil profits, would mollify local militants. Saleh Djasit, the governor of Riau, recently told an Asian business magazine: "Our heart is still in Indonesia. The people just want a better balance of wealth."

Sulawesi and Kalimantan

The recent violence in Kalimantan was not the first attacks on Madurese migrants. In early 1999, the Sambas area of West Kalimantan was rocked by some of the most vicious ethnic killings in the country in recent years. Dozens of people were hacked to pieces, and severed heads displayed on roadblocks manned by rebellious locals. But this conflict did not follow "normal" ethnic and religious boundaries: local Malay Muslims and indigenous Animist and Christian Dayaks confronted Muslim settlers from the island of Madura off Java. The conflict was therefore characterized as "interethnic", an explanation that is, in fact, quite unsatisfactory.

In West Kalimantan, the Malays and the Dayaks, though obviously adhering to widely different systems of socio-economic organization, both retain their respective communalist traditions, and relative harmony between the two groups has prevailed for generations. The balance was upset by a massive influx of Madurese, brought to Kalimantan (Borneo) under the infamous transmigrasi program. Madurese merchants and seafarers have visited Kalimantan ports for centuries, but in recent times, they have begun to settle on the island as farmers. The bloody clashes in Sambas were not separatist per se, but could give rise to regionalist sentiments, if the rights and needs of the local people are not safeguarded.

Similar problems exist on the nearby island of Sulawesi with its many different ethnic and religious groups, as well as migrants. From time to time, demands for independence have also been heard in different parts of the island, which in the late 1950s was drawn into the CIA-sponsored revolt against the then president Sukarno. In 1958, a group of dissident army officers set up the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia (PRRI), based in West Sumatra, and munitions and other equipment were airdropped by Americans based in Thailand, Taiwan and the Philippines. The rebellion was also supported by leaders of the Islamic Masyumi party, whose aim was not to break up Indonesia but to oppose Sukarno's policy of allying himself with the powerful Indonesian Communist Party, PKI.

But the north Sulawesi arm of the rebellion, called Permesta ("Overall Struggle") and led by Lt-Col. Harman N. "Ventje" Sumual, defended his turf as if it were a separate territory. The rebellion on both Sumatra and Sulawesi was eventually crushed by the Indonesian army, and the exposure of the CIA's involvement in the affair ironically strengthened its main target, the PKI. But the defeat of the rebels also led to increased militarization of some of the outlying islands - which, in turn, exacerbated local resentment with the central power in Jakarta. It is that decades-old resentment which Wahid now has to reverse into a new sense of unity under a more democratic leadership. If this means that "the Republic of the United States of Indonesia" will be restored is too early to say. But without more power to the provinces, less military action to solve local problems, and a willingness on all sides to compromise, Indonesia's unity may indeed be in serious jeopardy.

Wahid also has to convince the armed forces to accept a much reduced role in politics and society - which will be his most difficult challenge. A military coup, even if it would be welcomed by some quarters who think it could quell the present anarchy, could lead to something much worse, even a large-scale civil war, which may be fought along political rather than ethnic lines. The military may be painfully aware of this, which could be the reason why they have not, at least so far, challenged the democratically elected government.

Many also assert that a break up of Indonesia would jeopardize stability in the entire region - and that countries such as Japan (whose vital oil supplies from the Middle East pass through Indonesian waters), Australia (the first country to be affected by, for instance, a refugee crisis if Indonesia disintegrates) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean (of which Indonesia is an important member) therefore would do everything in their might to prevent such a disaster. But first Wahid has to act, and he has to act fast before the worst scenarios become realities.

This article first appeared in Irrawaddy, March-April 2001

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