Thu, Aug 30, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Many of Indonesia's poor nostalgic for Suharto's dictatorship

The government recognizes that widespread poverty can lead to political instability and is struggling to fund education, medical care and infrastructure

By Anthony Deutsch  /  AP , BEKASI, INDONESIA

The downfall of former Indonesian dictator Suharto in 1998 swept in an era of political freedom and hope for a better future.

But nearly a decade later, many in this nation of 235 million remain desperately poor. And in dozens of interviews with laborers, traders, hotel owners and entrepreneurs, Indonesians expressed what was once unthinkable -- nostalgia for the economic stability of Suharto's authoritarian, US-backed regime.

"What people want, what I want, is a return to Suharto's time," said Boan, a peasant who struggles to feed his three children by toiling in fields owned by wealthy farmers. "Life is bitter now compared to then."

He can barely pay for once-subsidized food and fuel, he said. And despite promises from authorities, the road in his village was never repaved after it was washed out in flooding six months ago.

"This government doesn't care about us," said Boan, sitting outside his dirt-floored home in Bekasi, near Jakarta, the capital, his worn feet caked in mud from the rice paddy.

The new sentiment toward Suharto, who is now 86, reflects how hard the transition to democracy has been in the world's most populous Muslim nation. Indonesia, a vast country of around 17,000 islands, endured centuries of colonization by the Portuguese, British and Dutch before being occupied by the Japanese during World War II. And now, with decentralization, it finds itself grappling with new layers of corruption, limited foreign investment and a string of terrorist attacks by Islamic militants.

Much of the current malaise is financial. While some people interviewed still oppose Suharto because of the rights abuses during his rule, especially in remote provinces where the military brutally suppressed separatists, almost all said they were financially better off 10 years ago.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the fourth head of state since Suharto's ouster, has yet to make good on promises to cut poverty since his election three years ago. Around half the population still lives on less than US$2 a day, and democracy can be a hard sell if it fails to provide prosperity.

Indonesia's recovery from the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis was slower than that of its smaller neighbors. The nation was thrust into a recession the World Bank described at the time as "the most dramatic economic collapse anywhere in 50 years."

After contracting 13 percent at the peak of the crisis, the economy has rebounded. But the disparity between rich and poor is growing, with a fifth of the rural population living below the government poverty line. Inflation is up, and so is unemployment, now at 10 percent.

The public perception is that the average Indonesian has not benefited enough from the recovery, IMF country director Stephen Schwartz said.

"There needs to be a system in place to protect the most vulnerable groups," he said. "Otherwise there will be resistance to keep the economy open."

Yudhoyono's government recognizes that widespread poverty can lead to political instability and is struggling to fund education, medical care and infrastructure. Some 51.4 trillion rupiah (US$5.5 billion) was allocated for poverty relief this year alone, including clean water supplies, electricity and affordable housing.

It is "the most important problem" facing the government today, said Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono, whose budget was recently slashed to finance rural development and compensate victims of a long stream of natural disasters.

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