Asia Program

New Indonesian Government Off on the Wrong Foot, Warns Leading Strategic Analyst

Nov 23, 1999

Reported by Robert M. Hathaway

Indonesia's new democracy has given that country a "second chance," according to one of Asia's most highly respected strategic thinkers, but the recently installed government of President Abdurrahman Wahid has already taken serious missteps that could lead to the unraveling of the world's fourth largest country.

In an afternoon seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, two of Indonesia's leading strategic analysts joined an American scholar to explore the political and economic tensions that trouble relations between Jakarta, the nation's capital, and the country's twenty-six provinces. The speakers concurred that Indonesia's failure to resolve these tensions could place its territorial integrity, and indeed its continued viability as a nation-state, at risk.

Jusuf Wanandi, who chairs the board of Indonesia's best known think tank, noted that the inauguration of a democratically-elected government has given Indonesia a second chance to establish itself as a stable political entity. But in Wanandi's view, President Wahid has gotten off on the wrong foot in dealing with the restless province of Aceh, the most serious political and security problem the new government confronts.

Unlike East Timor, the small province that recently voted for independence, Aceh is, according to Wanandi, an integral part of Indonesia, and its secession could initiate a disintegration of the entire country. Perhaps 80% of Aceh's population is significantly disaffected from Jakarta, Wanandi estimated. Wahid, rather than reaching out to these people, has made matters substantially worse by ill-considered talk of an Acehnese referendum. The Acehnese people, Wanandi contended, expect a referendum to give them the option of independence, as occurred in East Timor, whereas Wahid has no intention of putting that question to a vote. Jakarta must work out a "special status relationship" with Aceh that will keep the province within Indonesia, Wanandi argued, but Wahid's actions since becoming president have only widened the gap between Jakarta and the people of Aceh.

Mari Pangestu, an economist at the same think tank as Wanandi, focused her presentation on the economic dimensions of Indonesian regional tensions, and especially on questions involving resource sharing and distribution. While noting that Indonesia's macroeconomic indicators were more robust than a year ago, she observed that Indonesia's recovery was still twelve months behind that of the other countries most affected by the Asian economic crisis of the past two years. The country will, under the rosiest scenario, experience zero economic growth this year. It will take three to eight more years to rebuild the investor confidence that Indonesia requires if it is to sustain economic growth.

Moreover, Pangestu cautioned, the government's blueprint for economic decentralization is unlikely to resolve many of the grievances felt by the provinces. Only five of Indonesia's twenty-six provinces will receive significantly more resources under the new formula; Jakarta will continue to monopolize most of the country's oil and gas revenues. So the economic frictions underlying the widespread dissatisfaction with Jakarta's rule, she concluded, are likely to remain.

The Hudson Institute's Charles Horner broadened the discussion to incorporate the potential role of the global community in helping Indonesia manage its myriad problems in the coming years. Questioning the existence of an "international community" possessing the wisdom or the will to intervene in what are essentially local problems, Horner suggested that Indonesians would do better to look to their own resources for a resolution of the difficult issues they face. Echoing some of the "realist" critiques of international action, Horner called for the international community to pay greater attention to realities on the ground in places where it is contemplating peacekeeping or similar operations, and to show less devotion to lofty but abstract principles, including arguments about a moral imperative for intervention on humanitarian grounds. Horner's pithy comments encouraged seminar participants to ask whether, and to what extent, the ideas and ideals of Woodrow Wilson have a continuing relevance for the world of the twenty-first century.

The somber analysis offered by two of Indonesia's most prominent thinkers -- in particular Wanandi's criticism of Wahid's early weeks as president -- and Horner's cautionary observations about the ability of the international community to help Indonesia manage its center-periphery tensions presented a striking counter to the congratulatory comment that has generally greeted Wahid's election. If Wanandi and the other speakers are correct, Indonesia's ability to resolve the central dilemmas threatening its continued existence remains very much in doubt.

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