Ian MacKenzie, Jakarta – Indonesia's President Suharto leaves a country in economic flux when he sets out this week on a 12-day trip to southern Africa, Canada and Saudi Arabia.
And in the background, like an unwelcome ghost peeping from a partially closed closet, hovers the East Timor issue that has bedevilled Indonesia's foreign policy for years.
South Africa's Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo said last week President Nelson Mandela was expected to press Suharto for the release of East Timorese rebel leader Jose "Xanana" Gusmao, who is serving a 20-year sentence in a Jakarta prison.
Indonesia's Foreign Minister Ali Alatas said in September Jakarta could consider Gusmao's release, but only as part of a comprehensive solution for the troubled territory. He ruled out autonomy for the former Portuguese colony Indonesia invaded with tacit Western support in 1975 and annexed the following year.
Suharto leaves Jakarta on Tuesday for a two-day state visit to Namibia and will then fly to Cape Town for the two-day South African leg of his trip.
Namibia's President Sam Nujoma and Mandela – whose liking for colourful batik-style loose shirts delights Indonesians – both paid state visits to Jakarta earlier this year.
The Indonesian leader will then attend the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the Canadian city of Vancouver, where the woes of Asia's battered economies will be a major topic.
Indonesia last month agreed on a multi-billion dollar assistance and economic reform programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The fragile state of the economy was illustrated last Friday with a run on several branches of the country's largest private bank, Bank Central Asia (BCA), before calm was restored over the weekend.
Suharto will make the Islamic umroh – minor pilgrimage – to Mecca in Saudi Arabia before returning to Indonesia on November 29.
Mandela had a private meeting with Gusmao during his visit to Jakarta in mid-July. His efforts to mediate, however, have hit some snags, with South Africa expelling the Portuguese ambassador in August after the mission in Pretoria leaked a misdirected letter from Mandela to Suharto on East Timor. Gusmao was captured in 1992 after leading the military wing of the East Timorese Fretelin anti-Indonesian guerrilla group for 17 years. He was sentenced to life imprisonment – later reduced to 20 years – in May 1993 on charges of leading a separatist movement and illegal possession of weapons.
Indonesia has firmly rejected any challenge to its sovereignty over East Timor and Portugal – still regarded by the United Nations as the administering power – has shown no sign of compromise over its demands for a referendum on the territory despite long-running negotiations.
Suharto is also likely to face anti-Indonesian demonstrations over East Timor from human rights groups expected to gather in Vancouver next week.
Namibia is looking to boosting trade and investment with Indonesia, and is particularly interested in cooperation in the energy field and the exploitation of natural gas reserves.
South Africa's Ambassador to Indonesia, Sydney Kubheka, said the leaders of the two nations would sign trade and air services agreements in Cape Town.
He saw Suharto's visit as putting the seal on political and cultural relations and extending these to strengthened economic ties.
"Our cultural and political relations now ought to be translated into business opportunities for South Africans and Indonesians," he told Reuters.
An Indonesian group has already bought a major slice of South Africa's ostrich industry and a South African producer said the Indonesians could be on track to become the second biggest player in the world market for exotic ostrich products.