Wed, May 21, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Five years after Suharto, Indonesia shows signs of progress

East Timor has independence, the military no longer plays a key role in parliament and President Megawati Sukarnoputri has introduced direct presidential elections


At the end Suharto was even capable of admitting "mistakes and errors" he had made during his 32 years in power in Indonesia before he resigned on May 21, 1998 in the face of weeks of violent street protests.

His generals finally told the aging ruler it was time to go -- and Indonesians began to speak of democracy breaking out in their country of 18,000 islands.

Now, after years of turbulence and violence and two more presidents, relative peace has returned, and many Indonesians hope and believe they are on the road to stability, despite many obstacles still to be overcome.

Few would have believed it after Suharto was pushed out. Ethnic conflicts, for too long suppressed with naked force, exploded across the country, exacerbated by a severe economic crisis.

In Aceh, on the Moluccas and on Borneo, thousands died in the ensuing violence. Radical Islamists rose up. And in East Timor, annexed by Indonesia in 1975, a popular referendum over autonomy from Jakarta resulted in a bloodbath in 1999, incited by pro-Indonesian militias backed by the Indonesian army.

Indonesia, with its population of around 215 million inhabitants the world's fourth-largest country, has taxed to the limit the abilities of two presidents since Suharto was toppled.

His immediate successor Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie was seen only as a transitional solution, even though in June 1999 he called the first freely democratic parliamentary elections for 44 years.

The winner of those elections was the party of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of of the country's first president, Sukarno.

But the moderate Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid took over as head of state, soon coming into conflict with parliament over his style of government.

In July 2001 he gave may to Megawati, 56, who is often referred to as something of an enigma in Jakarta. She does not like to make speeches, despite her political background as the daughter of the president who took the country to independence from the Dutch.

Nevertheless, over her two years in office, East Timor has gained independence and other important reforms have been introduced.

The military, almost all-powerful under Sukarno, has lost its guaranteed seats in parliament, the provinces have gained power with their own legislative chambers and the president will in future be directly elected by the people.

Under her rule, potential sources of conflict within the diverse country have been damped down.

"The stability factor that has long been lacking in this country is now there," says Jochen Sauter, manager of the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Jakarta.

And the Asiatic Development Bank (ADB) also praises the country for its new-found stability.

"Political stability, a healthy economic policy and progress in structural reforms have all helped strengthen the currency, while interest rates and inflation are falling," it says.

Economic growth of around 3.4 percent is predicted for the current year, with a rise to 4 percent next year.

But the ADB also criticizes some aspects, calling for a more stable system of justice and "greater security in the political parameters at regional levels" in order to secure new investment in the longer term.

Many judges are seen as willing to take bribes, and international agencies tend to regard Indonesia as among the world's most corrupt countries.

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