Indonesia's Fall
ONE WEEK last May, the inhabitants of the world's fourth largest nation, a country of rich natural resources, physical beauty and unique human diversity, threw off a corrupt dictator and became free for the first time in 32 years. Within weeks, political prisoners were freed, banned magazines were reopened and preparations were being made for democratic elections.

In a cruel year for Asia, the changes in Indonesia should have been the one piece of good news. But few in Jakarta look to next year with anything less than dark trepidation: delight at President Suharto's removal and the sudden freedoms it generated have been overshadowed at every turn by economic crisis, political uncertainty and the reawakening of deadly internal conflicts.

The last time Indonesia witnessed such chaos and such freedom (in the mid 1960s, just before the creeping coup that bought Suharto to power), it was followed by a period of terrible bloodshed. The fear now is of some kind of a repeat of that cycle for, apart from new liberties, the defining characteristic of this year has been violence.

It began in February with a scattering of riots in remote villages in Java, provoked by food shortages and price increases and directed, as such violence so often is, against Indonesia's Chinese minority. With increasing boldness, student mounted demonstrations against President Suharto across the country. At one of these, on 12 May at Jakarta's Trisakti University, soldiers fired live rounds, killing five young demonstrators. So began two days of violence and unforgettable physical horror. In 20 different areas of Jakarta, mobs of ordinary people set about looting, smashing and burning their own neighbourhoods. Again, it was the Chinese minority which suffered the most - later, it became clear that dozens, perhaps as many as 160, Chinese women, had been tortured and raped during the riots. In three separate shopping centres, more than a thousand people were burnt to death, trapped by their own fire in the shops they were looting.

Within a week, Suharto had resigned, in favour of his vice-president, the eccentric and unpopular B J Habibie, who has passed new election laws. He announced democratic elections for next summer. But without popular legitimacy and saddled with Asia's worst economic crisis, Habibie has proved incapable of uniting the country and quelling the violence.

Nobody appears truly in control of what is taking place, and the violence may be the visible symptom of a nation in deep, and perhaps terminal, distress.