Leading article: The dangerous path ahead for Indonesia

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The Independent Culture
THE SAVAGE fighting between Christians and Muslims in the "Spice Island" of Ambon is a reminder of a harsh truth of modern history: however much we may wish otherwise, nothing is harder than the transformation of a totalitarian state, embracing different cultures, races and religions, into a peaceful democracy. We saw it in the wars on the fringes of the former Soviet Union. We see it today in the wars of the former Yugoslavia. The same may now be happening in Indonesia.

The world's fourth most populous country holds parliamentary elections this summer which President BJ Habibie promises will usher in a more democratic system. And indeed there has been some reason for hope since he replaced the corrupt and autocratic President Suharto last year. The worst of the economic crisis which struck the country in 1997 may be over, while East Timor, that huge blot on Indonesia's international reputation, is being offered the chance of independence after decades of repression.

But, almost certainly, disorder and violence will increase between now and 7 June. The students who helped bring about Suharto's downfall have been skirmishing with government troops on the streets of Jakarta this week, calling for the resignation of Habibie. Who knows what other flashpoints lurk in the recesses of an archipelago of 17,000 islands scattered across an area larger than the United States, whose 200 million inhabitants are mainly Muslim but with significant Christian, Buddhist and Hindu minorities? Ambon may only be the start of it.

No fewer than 48 parties will contest the election - a fine advertisement for pluralism before voting day, but a virtual guarantee of instability thereafter. The fragmentation makes it likely that the well-organised Golkar party of President Habibie will carry the day. In that case, many Indonesians will feel they have been teased with the prospect of change, only to end up with more of the same. This would be a recipe for disappointment - and worse.

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