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The torch passes

Time Magazine - August 6, 2001

Tim McGirk, Jakarta – When the scorpion tanks clattered to a halt outside the Istana Merdeka palace in Jakarta, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid was relieved. "Maybe they're here to protect the palace," he remarked. But when his daughter pointed out that the tanks had swiveled their guns toward the white, colonnaded executive residence, aiming straight at his presidential balcony, Wahid knew he had lost his game of brinkmanship: the powerful Indonesian security forces had switched loyalties to his Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

For a while last week, Indonesia had an embarrassment of Presidents. Even after Wahid was impeached and the People's Consultative Assembly gave Megawati his post, the irascible and nearly blind Muslim cleric held on. He insisted that his ouster was illegal and refused to leave the palace. "They can turn off the water and electricity, but they're not going to get me out of here," he told his wheelchair-bound wife, Sinta Nuriyah. But Megawati already had the presidential "No. 1" license plate screwed onto her black Mercedes limousine. "That's fine, dear," sighed Wahid's wife, long accustomed to his combativeness. "But the people are going to be looking to you for leadership. What then?" Wahid relented. In fact, after 21 months in office, during which Wahid pushed through some bold, liberal initiatives he oversaw the devolution of power from the capital to the regions and gave new freedoms to minority religions the 60-year-old leader was not only politically defeated but seriously ill. On July 22, his physician diagnosed a level of hypertension that could bring on a third and possibly fatal stroke. So Wahid finally agreed to leave the palace and spend eight days at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland for medical treatment. On Thursday, the family hurriedly packed their belongings, including one of the self-help audiotapes Wahid had been listening to: When Things Fall Apart.

Wahid's tragicomic demise only briefly concealed the fact that Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, is in real danger of falling to pieces, as it has been since the 1998 fall of the autocratic Suharto, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 32 years. During Wahid's 21 months, everything got worse. And as the center collapses, ancient tribal and religious feuds are being revived across the archipelago of 13,000 islands; 3,500 died in the violence last year. Unemployment stands at 40% while corruption and economic bungling have kept foreign investment at "sub-zero," as one diplomat in Jakarta puts it. Wahid's blindness, along with his bumbling stubbornness, kept him from seeing the full extent of Indonesia's breakdown. Most worrying of all, many observers in the capital doubt that Megawati, whose main political asset is her heritage her father was Sukarno, founding President of independent Indonesia has the will or smarts to make the hard decisions now needed. Though the country's paramount legislative body passed Wahid's impeachment, invoking incredibly vague provisions of the nation's constitution, the support of the army was key to Megawati's taking power. The question now: Will she be a hostage to the generals and their vision of how to solve Indonesia's pyramid of problems?

A moderate and a reformer, Wahid came into office with high expectations. He was Indonesia's first democratically elected President, and as leader of the 40 million-strong Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a Muslim socio religious group, he had a history of holding his own against strong-man Suharto, a unique distinction in Indonesia. But his tragic character flaws or neriness and a sense of infallibility soon became apparent. His Cabinet was run like a bus terminal: a total of 22 ministers came and went from the time he assumed office in October 1999. He refused to come to terms with the new spirit of democracy in the capital: the constitution is vague about whether the President or the parliament holds more power, but Wahid never compromised with his legislative rivals and he suffered the consequences. When two financial scandals erupted last year, though minor by the high standard of Indonesian graft, legislators squawked, and he ignored them. Behind the scenes, the powerful military organization forged by Suharto, a former general, despised his initiatives to dismantle unitary rule and give autonomy to local governments, fearing it would lead to a breakup of the country. Some of his Muslim supporters were alienated by his more tolerant views of minority religions.

Wahid's haughtiness was almost inevitable considering his background: born into a family of Muslim religious leaders, he inherited his status as a wali, or holy man. Recalls one childhood friend: "Even as a kid, elderly people would come up and kiss his hand because he was the son of a kyai." But his exalted religious status left him dangerously uninformed about his eroding support in Jakarta and throughout the nation. Blinded completely by a stroke in 1998, he could no longer read a newspaper or a government report. He shunned advisers and retreated into the supernatural world of omens and spirits. One minister complained that he would often change his mind after consulting these spirits.

To Wahid's credit, his departure may not have been dignified but it was peaceful. Before the dEnouement, Indonesia was veering dangerously toward civil war, with the army and police ranks divided over whom to support in the crisis. As the final impeachment hearing drew near, Wahid warned that tens of thousands of his followers might storm Jakarta. But the fanatics stayed away, even the Ready to Die Forces, a group of firebrands in war paint who in April gave showy demonstrations of kung fu kicks and self-mutilation and vowed to martyr themselves defending Wahid. His adversaries jeer at Wahid's failure to conjure up mass protests, understandable in a capital where slum gangs print up rent-a-mob rate cards ($2 buys you a supporter for three hours; banner waving and chants cost extra). But Wahid's advisers say he ordered his supporters to stay home in order to avoid a massacre by the 40,000 soldiers and police guarding Jakarta during the showdown.

The question now is whether Megawati can do a whole lot better than the predecessor she once referred to as her "brother." She has stronger backing in parliament, where her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) is the largest faction. The military likes her; they share a common abhorrence of the separatist fever sweeping through Aceh and Irian Jaya provinces. Plenty of charisma still clings to the Sukarno family name, and Megawati's Buddha-like silence and inscrutability have proven useful in the past: for years, she stolidly withstood a steady fire of intimidation by Suharto, who feared she would emerge as an opposition figure.

But is she up to this daunting job? Megawati's critics say her preference for public silence masks a dim intellect. She has no clear ideology other than a few garbled echoes of her father's nationalism, and a dislike for regional autonomy. ("You can move her around like a piece of furniture," one ex-Cabinet minister scoffed.) On Sunday night, when Wahid tried to save himself from the impeachment vote by declaring a state of emergency and ordering parliament to dissolve, Megawati astounded even her most fervent supporters by spending the day at a grandchild's birthday party and then watching the cartoon movie Shrek. On her second day in office, when she might have been giving speeches or working the assembly, she popped up at a fashion show at a swanky Jakarta hotel. So what, growls her husband, businessman Taufik Kiemas. "If Wahid can become President and can lead the country with only 9% of the vote and no sight," he says, "why not Megawati?" (The reference is to Wahid's adroit ascension to the presidency in 1999 with control of only a fraction of the seats in the People's Consultative Assembly by rallying anti-Megawati legislators.)

Wahid's last gambit came on Sunday night, when he made one final try to impose his will on the military he constitutionally controls. He summoned Security Minister Agum Gumelar and Armed Forces Chief Admiral Widodo Adisucipto to the palace and sought their help implementing a state of emergency. Had it worked, this move would have blocked the assembly and staved off the impeachment. The two men refused. After a "screaming match," say palace insiders, the visitors stormed off and Wahid declared the state of emergency anyway, hastening his own downfall. That action was blatantly unconstitutional and Wahid probably guessed it would fail; the move's fecklessness became apparent when the generals sent the tanks to surround the presidential palace. Says one Western diplomat: "They hated Wahid for trying to reform the military. They wanted to see him go."

Without the military Megawati might not be President, but its support comes at a price. Army leaders are insisting that the new President allow them to take on separatists in Aceh and Irian Jaya. During the months-long political standoff in Jakarta, they began preparations.

Security forces moved three additional battalions into the oil- and gas-rich province of Aceh, bringing their strength up to a total of nearly 40,000 soldiers. They are already burning villages and kidnapping suspected collaborators of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Often, these missing Acehnese turn up on the side of the road, shot dead after torture. "The military is using brute force to eliminate everything in its path including civilians," says another Western diplomat. Police commandos even rounded up Acehnese autonomy negotiators recently and are keeping them incommunicado despite Wahid's promises that they would be left alone.

For all Wahid's many flaws, he did try to improve the military's record on human rights abuses. Megawati probably won't even do that, according to human rights groups. Says Faisal Ridha, an Acehnese spokesman for the Aceh Center for Referendum (SIRA): "Megawati is a guarantee that repression in Aceh will continue, if not increase." Diplomats say that the military, still angry over the 1999 secession of Indonesia's former East Timor province, is also planning to sabotage the Aug. 30 elections in the fledgling state.

Beholden to the security forces, Megawati is also unlikely to weed out crooked officers. An estimated 75% of the military's cash comes from "non-budgetary sources," as local economists euphemistically say, income sources that include logging in Indonesia's vanishing rain forests, extortion and prostitution. Jakarta's notorious red-light district was shut down last December, not out of puritanical zeal but because the army and police quarreled over sharing the booty.

According to the weekly Tempo magazine, one retiring Jakarta police chief recently gave his officers 22 imported cars and 17 motorcycles, worth more than the police department's operating budget. Wahid tried to pension off the worst offenders and replace them with more idealistic middle-ranking officers. Under Megawati, those reforms will likely stop.

The military will be unable to help Megawati where it matters most: the economy. Her first test comes when the President fills the financial posts within her Cabinet. A college dropout, Megawati has shown no knack for the economic side of governance. One ex-minister recalled spending a night synthesizing a complicated briefing to two pages for her. "She couldn't even get through the first few paragraphs," he laments. "Then she asked if there were any new projects being inaugurated where she could cut the ribbon." He pauses, then adds, "I think she'd rather be Queen than President."

If ever a country was in need of some brilliant technocrats it's today's Indonesia. The country owes $140 billion in foreign debt – an amount as large as its yearly GDP – inflation is nearing double-digits and the rupiah is one of the weakest currencies in the region. Says Anggito Abimanyu, an economics professor at Jakarta's Gadjah Mada University: "What we need now is stability and continuous policy."

Most worrying to foreign investors is that Megawati may give top finance posts to her husband's cronies, stepping up the already towering level of corruption in business. Foreign energy, manufacturing and telecommunications companies have walked away from Indonesia in recent months, many angered by a constant demand for bribes. One Canadian insurance executive was jailed under false charges last October, and he soon found out why: a senior police officer came to his cell ordering him to hand over his company's shares in a local firm. Sometimes local officials find novel approaches to circumvent Westerners' squeamishness over paying bribes.

A European executive was spotted recently at an exclusive Jakarta golf course playing with top government officials. His pockets were stuffed with deutschmarks and he was placing absurd, high-stakes bets predicting he'd shoot a hole-in-one, for example which he deliberately lost.

Megawati may also find her Cabinet troublesome, starting with her newly elected replacement as Vice President: Hamzah Haz. A conservative Muslim who leads the third-largest political grouping, the United Development Party, Haz, 61, opposed Megawati's candidacy in 1999 on the grounds that a woman should not be President of the world's most populous Muslim country. Megawati's party only controls one-third of the seats in the legislature, and now it's payback time for her ascension to the presidency. The other parties that supported her against Wahid, such as Suharto's Golkar, are clamoring for powerful Cabinet posts. If Megawati fails to oblige, they may start to rip into her as they did with Wahid.

It's unlikely she could do a worse job of warming up to the politicians than her predecessor did. "He burps and farts, and he tells bad jokes," says Wahid's Australian biographer Greg Barton, who admires the former President nonetheless. "And he also has a reckless streak. When he's frustrated, he verbalizes it." In the past four months, Wahid went through four Justice Ministers and as many attorneys general. With no boss, the junior bureaucrats seldom came to the office. In the upper floors of the Justice Ministry building, there was no activity, nothing but the stale smoke of clove cigarettes in the corridors a fairly accurate metaphor for life in the capital in the waning days of the Wahid era.

Meanwhile, in the far-flung islands of the nation, Indonesians are thumbing their noses at Jakarta and at the institutions that claim to run the land. Squatters invade mines and plantations, nobody pays taxes, smuggling is rife and murders go unpunished. Dayak tribesmen in central Kalimantan still keep the heads of their Madurese victims from last February's ethnic riots as trophies of magic power. Indonesia now has more than 1.2 million refugees from ethnic conflict and no government service to care for them. Says sociologist Paulus Wirutomo from the University of Indonesia in Jakarta: "There's a hidden hate being kept alive in our culture. We have to get rid of this." Wahid tried but he couldn't calm this hostility. The main question about Megawati: Will she even try?