Indonesians live in fear of new wave of unrest

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The Independent Online
AT THE weekend, he made his first discreet public appearance, during prayers at a Jakarta mosque. His half-brother reported a few days ago that he was in good spirits, and he appears to be still living in the modest luxury of his family home.

Since his sudden resignation two weeks ago tomorrow, almost nothing has been heard from him and whether he is happy, sad, bitter, or resigned, nobody really knows. But as he surveys the country that he left behind, Mr Suharto, the former president of Indonesia, may find himself registering a surprising emotion: relief.

Yesterday came the latest indications that if things in Indonesia were bad when Mr Suharto quit, they are rapidly becoming much worse. By the government's own reckoning, unemployment will rise this year to more than 15 million - 17 per cent of the work force. The economy will shrink by 10 per cent, and inflation is predicted to hit 85 per cent or more.

Thanks to Mr Suharto's neglect and his stubbornness, Indonesia, which was once a leader among the developing nations, is slipping into a state of poverty, hunger and social collapse. On the streets of Jakarta, there are growing numbers of beggars. The tigers in West Java's biggest safari park are being fed only half the week, and in parts of the countryside, the human population is surviving on roots not rice.

The population minister, Ida Bagus Oka, yesterday voiced fears of an imminent baby boom. There was a simple reason. The price of condoms has doubled recently in the world's fourth biggest nation, which already has a population of 202 million.

But the gravest concerns are of further political and social unrest. If the economic crisis of last month could stir up a popular uprising against Mr Suharto -whose power had been consolidated over 30 years - what effect will an even worse situation have on the hesitant government of his successor, BJ Habibie?

Mr Suharto's resignation a fortnight ago was unquestionably a turning point. But with every day it becomes clearer that many perils lie along the way of recovery from dictatorship. Since succeeding to the presidency, the former vice-president has exceeded low expectations. He has promised free elections next year and, yesterday, formally recognised Indonesia's biggest trade union, whose founder was released from jail last week.

The political discontent which forced Mr Suharto out of office has been defused, but not completely eased by Mr Habibie's succession. Yesterday, as is now usual, students demonstrated outside the parliament calling for immediate elections. Mr Habibie's image as a lifelong creature of Suharto gives him little credibility as a reformer and however deftly he negotiates the political currents, he still risks being swamped by the tidal wave of economic disaster.

The International Monetary Fund, which suspended its $40bn (pounds 25bn) package to Indonesia after Mr Suharto's fall, is expected to reschedule it soon. However, the economic assumptions on which the IMF based its calculations have all had to be revised, as riots, political turmoil and the flight of the persecuted Chinese population have all undermined already dismal levels of confidence.