Indonesian leader nods off during apology to people Indonesia

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The Independent Online

The beleaguered president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, apologised yesterday for his failures, and warned that the religious war in the Moluccan islands could lead to the collapse of the world's fourth largest nation.

The beleaguered president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, apologised yesterday for his failures, and warned that the religious war in the Moluccan islands could lead to the collapse of the world's fourth largest nation.

"Social disharmony involving religion in the Moluccas clearly brings the potential of serious national disintegration and, if not halted, it could spread to other parts in Indonesia," he said, in an accountability speech delivered to the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), the body which elected him last October. "To all the people of Indonesia, I humbly apologise for being unable to fully solve the prevailing problems during the last 10 months."

The speech represented what many Indonesians, including some of his closest advisers, regard as his last chance to rescue a government which has been gravely compromised by corruption allegations, palace intrigue, and the president's dismal management.

Until recently, there was serious talk in the MPR about impeaching Mr Wahid for a series of financial scandals involving members of his entourage. That threat appears to have receded for the time being but the intense scrutiny devoted to yesterday's address illustrates how low Mr Wahid's standing has sunk since his appointment as Indonesia's first ever democratically elected president.

Today, leaders of the MPR's various factions will give their responses to his speech; the tone of the proceeding will indicate whether Mr Wahid is to lose his job or whether, as most people now expect, he will survive, at least for the next few months. "We're looking to the future, and we cannot wait another 10 months," said Laksamana Sukardi, an economic reformer who was sacked by Mr Wahid in April. "This country has already been ruined by economic crisis. But maybe the best thing to do to retain him, but restrain him."

"Gus Dur", as the president is known, is almost blind and the 90 minute, occasionally rambling, speech was read out on his behalf by his cabinet secretary, Marsilam Simanjuntak. The president sat it out in his characteristic pose - slumped back in his chair, munching sweets, and occasionally nodding off during some of his own duller passages.

Among his promises were the commitment to accelerate reform of Indonesia's chaotic financial institutions, to eliminate corruption, and to grant special autonomy status to the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya where guerrilla armies are fighting for independence. He also promised a reshuffle of his unwieldy and ineffective cabinet. "We know exactly what it is we want from our country," he said. "We want our country to be genuinely free and for our people to be a dignified and sophisticated nation."

But the speech lacked any specific proposals, particularly regarding the Moluccas, where more than 2,000 people have been killed in an 18-month war between Muslims and Christians. Many of the soldiers and police sent to impose law and order have deserted to join the warring sides, and government ministers have made contradictory comments on the proposal that a UN peace-keeping force be created to police the conflict. The war already shows signs of spilling over to the neighbouring territories of Sulawesi and west New Guinea.

But, beyond acknowledging the gravity of the situation, Mr Wahid offered no new suggestions for improving it. "Charisma and moral authority are not enough," the Defence Minister, Juwono Sudarsono, said after the speech. "You have to deliver results." Apart from passing judgement on the president's performance, the MPR will over the next 10 days discuss proposals to change the Indonesian constitution in order to make it easier for presidents to be impeached.

There will be moves to introduce direct presidential elections, and to appoint a prime minister who would be responsible for the day-to-day running of government.

A few dozen students unfurled protest banners outside the assembly complex but so far there has been no sign of the large and violent demonstrations which have paralysed Jakarta during previous meetings of the MPR.

* A leading UN official insisted yesterday that Indonesia move faster in bringing to justice military officials accused of orchestrating the campaign of violence that devastated East Timor last year. Mary Robinson, the high commissioner for human rights said: "A significant number of names of perpetrators of grave violations of human rights are known. That makes it more urgent to have this process of justice." Pro-Indonesia gangs destroyed much of East Timor in the lead-up to and immediately after a UN-sponsored ballot in which the people voted for independence. Hundreds of thousands fled or were taken to Indonesian-held West Timor immediately after the results were announced.