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Mega-Hamzah honeymoon over

Straits Times - October 20, 2001

Derwin Pereira, Jakarta – President Megawati Sukarnoputri's honeymoon with her deputy is over as both leaders tussle over Indonesia's response to the US military campaign against Afghanistan.

Observers said that while the 54-year-old leader appeared to be more accommodating to Washington, Vice-President Hamzah Haz was taking a harder line to work the Muslim ground ahead of the 2004 elections in which Ms Megawati would be his chief rival.

"It is clear that Hamzah is exploiting this issue to his own political benefit," a senior member of the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) told The Straits Times. He noted that Jakarta had not articulated a clear policy towards the US strikes against the Taleban regime yet mainly because of "a growing rift" between the two politicians who viewed ties with Washington very differently.

Ms Megawati was one of the first leaders in the world to visit the US after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11. While she offered her condolences then, Mr Hamzah sang a different tune, saying that Indonesia would "cleanse the US of its sins" against the rest of the world.

With the US launching attacks against Afghanistan this month, the Vice-President maintained that the strikes had to stop because it was targeting mosques and other civilian targets. Analysts said Mr Hamzah's comments could also be prompted by pressure from his United Development Party (PPP), the largest Muslim bloc in Parliament.

The PPP's deputy secretary-general Juhad Mahay disclosed: "He has to follow the party line even more so because he is our leader." From the PPP's perspective, it is better for Mr Hamzah to play to the Muslim gallery now ahead of the 2004 election in which Ms Megawati would be his main rival.

But the Vice-President, while sounding brazen earlier in his criticisms of the US, has been of late careful not to condemn outright American efforts against terrorism. This is partly due to pressures from the palace to toe the government line.

Yesterday, he urged the demonstrators to stop the anti-US rallies as thousands of protesters marched down Jakarta's main thoroughfare after Friday prayers. Mr Hamzah said: "Indonesian Muslims, please stop the rallies. In the past weeks, I have been tolerant. Not anymore."

Commenting on the growing rift between the two leaders, Dr Hermawan Sulistyo of the Indonesian Institute for Social Sciences noted: "The honeymoon between Mega and Hamzah is over." But most analysts believe that this will not undermine Ms Megawati's presidency, given that the broad consensus in the opposition and Muslim camp is to support her until 2004.