Leading article: As the smoke clears, there is cause for hope

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The Independent Culture
WHERE ARE they now? As a service to readers, we offer the chance to catch up on one of those huge tornadoes of news stories which overwhelm the media before blowing themselves out, leaving a trail of wreckage and half-memories. Remember a year ago when, after the economy of the fourth most populous country in the world went down the toilet, Indonesia was convulsed by riots which deposed the wicked dictator Suharto? Then everything went quiet, along came the Omagh bomb and President Clinton's impeachment, and the media caravan moved on.

Today sees the culmination of the process that began a year ago: a rainbow of 48 colour-coded parties are standing in Indonesia's free elections, in which the ruling Golkar Party of ex-President Suharto is unlikely to win a majority. After 32 years of totalitarian rule, it looks as though the potentially dominant power of south-east Asia is heading towards the messy compromises of an imperfect, but maturing democracy.

Meanwhile, the situation in East Timor, one of the historic causes of the liberal left, is a similar mixture of three parts hope and two parts fear. Since the province was annexed in 1975, the indigenous population has been subjected to a form of "ethnic cleansing" accompanied by the forced settlement of Javanese. There will be a referendum in two months' time on a plan for autonomy, which is likely to be rejected because it falls short of independence.

Today's Indonesian elections are a big step in the right direction. Not only does the country now have a functioning democracy, with the military scaling down its political role, but it has a relatively free press, and the economy has bottomed out. This time last year, Indonesia was the biggest basket-case in the meltdown of Far Eastern former "tigers" which threatened to bring the global economy crashing down. Now a programme of reforms has been agreed with the IMF and some sectors of the Indonesian economy are recovering.

A prospering, stable and democratic Indonesia is still some way off, but at least the road ahead is visible through the smoke left by last year's maelstrom of saturation media coverage. With any luck, the country will continue to attract little journalistic interest in the years to come.