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Habibie: I'm not a king. I'm just like you

Time Magazine - August 3, 1998

When he took the reins from Suharto in May, B.J. Habibie was generally viewed as a short-term, transitional President. Since then, he has confounded the skeptics by spearheading political reforms that depart radically from the policies of his predecessor. But with an economy in reverse and government institutions breaking down, the challenges facing Habibie are enormous, including creating a functioning presidency. When his staff tried to call his motorcade, they found his mobile phone was dead because the bill had not been paid. In a wide-ranging 100-minute talk in Jakarta with correspondent John Colmey and reporter David Liebhold, Habibie spoke of his values, answered his critics and explained his goals. Excerpts:

Time: What is your vision of democracy for Indonesia?

Habibie: Everything – whether it's democracy or economy or justice – is derivative from the pure human-rights values. [But] you should know that every human being has culture. For example, everybody needs, let's say, 1,500 calories a day. O.K., we agree that these are the human-rights values. But the way they take their calories is their culture. The Germans like sausages, the Americans like steaks, the Japanese like sashimi, the Indonesians like chicken. I don't have the right to insist that the Americans have to take their calories the way I do. That is insulting the values of human rights.

Time: So how does this relate to Indonesian democracy?

Habibie: I have to start from the basic value of human rights. The first decision I made, only 27 hours after I became President, was the composition of my cabinet. This was done while taking into account two extremely important values: taking care of the poor and the economy. I decided to isolate the Bank of Indonesia. That was never done before. I don't want [the central bank] to be interfered with by the President, by a minister, or anybody else. The next thing I did was order the release of political prisoners; I gave criteria [for their release], based on human rights.

Time: Even within your Golkar party, many would like to remove you. Why?

Habibie: I don't know. Why don't you ask them? I believe that every second, every minute I'm here is important for the future of my country. I'm not a king: I don't want to be exclusive. I'm just like you. I want you to feel that I'm just your neighbor. I'm not sitting here taking something; I'm here to give something back. One thing is sure: whoever becomes President after me, it won't be easy for them to be exclusive.

Time: Are some in the military unhappy with the changes under way?

Habibie: No. The military in Indonesia was born out of people's power. The military gets its budget from the people and is always integrated with the people.

Time: Would you trust a military figure to lead the country now?

Habibie: I never make a distinction between military and non-military people. Whoever becomes President must be the best son of this country.

Time: Given your years in the government and relationship with President Suharto, many critics claim your presidency is a continuation of the New Order.

Habibie: There are two ways of making history: from within the elite – or from the outside. Being inside doesn't mean you're a puppet. Suharto was in the mainstream of the Sukarno era, but that didn't mean he did everything Sukarno told him. I'm in the mainstream of Suharto's period. It doesn't mean I'm going to do what he wants me to do. But if you are outside the mainstream, how can you ever accumulate experience? If you have never been in the cockpit, how can you ever be acquainted with the instruments for flying the airplane?

Time: Some worry that the government doesn't feel the plight of the people.

Habibie: The people have enjoyed sustained economic growth for almost two-and-a-half decades. Suddenly, a year ago, we had that financial disaster. Now what has happened since that time? The former President established three organizations, all dedicated for the economy. These must be balanced with at least one or two agencies for the reformation of political life. This was not happening, and this might be one of the reasons the IMF and all the multilateral organizations were hesitating – because they have the right to worry about risks.

Time: Do you think the IMF has got it right in Indonesia?

Habibie: Yes, yes. Look, the IMF has learned a lot while helping a lot of countries, including the United Kingdom. We could enjoy the accumulated experience of the IMF with other countries. I believe in the spirit and the attitude of the IMF.

Time: You have long been viewed as an advocate of heavy state spending.

Habibie: I'll tell you the real story. I was asked to create strategic industry in my country, to bring self-confidence to the people of Indonesia. To bring them the confidence that they are as good as the Americans, the Japanese, the Chinese or the Europeans in technology. I was asked by the former President and the parliament to perform something that the people could be proud of, and say, "Hey, we are just the same as they are." The task was to build a modern, sophisticated airplane of our own design. That task was given to me in 1974, when I was 37 years old. So, I tried to make that happen. And, thank heaven, it happened. The airplane, for the US or for Europe, is just an airplane. But it's not just an airplane. It's the awakening of the people of Indonesia.

Time: Why are some political prisoners still in jail? For example, labor activist Dita Sari is serving a six-year sentence for advocating what appears in the press every day.

Habibie: I have given the criteria for releasing political prisoners to the military, to the Justice Ministry, to the cabinet. First, they must not belong to a party which tries to undermine the constitution. Second, they must not belong to a terrorist organization, any such organization that is not allowed to exist in Indonesia based on the law. And third, they must not be criminals. I also asked the authorities to release prisoners systematically, not under pressure. I didn't want them to do it based on emotion. And I have asked the Justice Minister to report to me every week.

Time: Do you like this job?

Habibie: I have to accept any job given to me, and I have to like it. Because if you don't like a job given to you, you will be frustrated and get a headache. I don't want to disappoint the people, because they honored me with the job and I have to pay back with honor.

Time: Will you be among the candidates in next year's presidential election?

Habibie: I don't know. I have only one thing in mind and that is to bring back the dynamism of our economy.

Time: Do you think there are any important differences between Western and Asian concepts of human rights?

Habibie: No, no. The difference is in its translation and implementation, like what I told you: 1,500 calories – how you take it. Is it different? No.