Indonesia will soon yearn for the good old days of Suharto

People power got rid of the dictator, but the economic crisis that led to his overthrow will get worse, writes Richard Lloyd Parry
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The Independent Online
AT SOME point in the careers of most toppled dictators, after the disgrace and vilification, comes the cult of personality. Germany has its neo-Nazis, in Madrid old men still mutter about how good things were under Franco, and in Tokyo a film has just opened about General Hideki Tojo, the "misunderstood" wartime prime minister who was hanged as a war criminal.

It is too early to start talking about the rehabilitation of President Suharto of Indonesia: last week, the demands were just beginning for an investigation into the sources of his huge family wealth. But soon - within a few months, if not weeks - there will be ample reasons for looking back on his disgraceful last few months as a golden age. For however dire Indonesians' sufferings since the Asian economic crisis began last summer, they are going to get much worse.

By yesterday, the exhilaration of the past few days had tailed off into nervous anticlimax. All week, Jakarta has been alive with alarming rumours - of imminent martial law or a "Tiananmen" crackdown against the demonstrating students. The rumour-mongering is symptomatic of the deep uncertainty that has taken hold in Indonesia since a loosely co-ordinated group of students brought down one of the most powerful men in Asia. A revolution took place here last week, but nobody can be sure what it has achieved.

Yesterday, still looking as if he could not quite believe his luck, former vice-president BJ Habibie swore in his new cabinet, though, like everything he has done in the past three days, it gives few clues about his intentions.

In his inaugural speech, President Habibie told his people that he was "moved by your recent struggle for total reform" and promised "a responsible government of the kind we all want". But most members of his new cabinet were originally appointed ministers by Mr Suharto. He called the student movement "a fresh current which is carrying us into the 21st century" - and then sent in the army to flush the students out of parliament early yesterday morning. He promised to review a repressive subversion law - but the next day, Muchtar Pakpahan, Indonesia's best-known political prisoner and trade union leader, was returned to prison after a year in hospital.

Nobody, perhaps not even the new president himself, knows whether he will turn out to be an imaginative reformer, a puppet of Mr Suharto or the military, or a new kind of dictator. According to the constitution, he will serve out Mr Suharto's five-year term of office until 2003. But there is not much doubt that if a pretext were needed for circumventing this, General Wiranto, the powerful commander of the armed forces, could find one.

Even assuming President Habibie has the best of intentions, the economic task in front of him is formidable. A fortnight ago, the Indonesian economy was described as being on the brink of collapse - it was economic pain that gave impetus and mass support to the students' demands. But the crisis is now much worse, and he faces it without leadership experience, a solid power base or the clear support of either his own people or the international community.

When investors spoke of lack of foreign confidence in Suharto's Indonesia, they were talking in economic terms. Now, foreigners in Jakarta are afraid not just for their investments, but for their lives. Thousands fled in the week before Suharto's resignation and many will not return.

Among the refugees are Indonesian Chinese, the country's most active entrepreneurs, but also its scapegoats in times of crisis. Despite making up less than 5 per cent of the population, they are reckoned to generate more than two-thirds of its wealth. In the past few months, their enterprise has been rewarded with vicious racist attacks.

Indonesia's only lifeline - the $43bn (pounds 27bn) bail-out programme agreed with the International Monetary Fund - is looking increasingly frayed after the events of the past week. Early on, Mr Habibie made a point of stressing that he will carry out the reforms demanded by the IMF, although it was these same reforms that worsened the protests against his predecessor.

Many in the opposition see further aid to Indonesia as a waste of time until the new government proves itself free of the corruption that compromised Mr Suharto; they call instead for humanitarian aid aimed directly at the needy. "It's useless to bail out the government in the current situation," says Faisal Basrie, economics professor at the University of Indonesia. "If the IMF gives us $1m next month, the money will just run away."

For the fact is that anything could happen in Indonesia. The country's neighbours are bracing themselves for a refugee crisis caused by thousands of Indonesian boat people. The latest rumour yesterday was of an imminent coup by Lieutenant-General Prabowo Subianto, son-in-law of Mr Suharto, who was sacked late on Friday from his command of the army's crack Strategic Reserve.

Even the students are becoming divided between those who reject Mr Habibie as a puppet of the old regime, and those who wish to give him a chance. How appealing now seem the days of Suharto, when times were hard, although not this hard, and when Indonesia was united briefly in its collective loathing for the bad old man.