WITH nearly 200 million people, Indonesia is the fourth-most-populous nation in the world, ranking behind only China, India, and the United States.
Yet little is written about it in the US. One of the rare exceptions was last year, when an Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization summit drew President Clinton and the US press corps to Jakarta.
Many Americans are aware, at least vaguely, that Indonesia brutally and illegally invaded East Timor in 1975, killing some 200,000 people. And they may be aware that President Suharto has been in control for a long, long time (since 1968).
What will become of Indonesia when Mr. Suharto leaves the scene is the subject of much speculation in that country. It should be elsewhere too. Indonesia is a growing Asian economic power possessed with abundant natural resources. An orderly transition from corrupt, one-man authoritarianism, backed by a military elite, into a more open democratic society would benefit the Indonesian people and the region as a whole.
Recent crackdowns on journalists and in East Timor are moves in the wrong direction. Last week, the government urged editors to fire four journalists at two Jakarta papers for activities in support of AJI, the Alliance of Independent Journalists, a press organization it does not sanction. Three others have been arrested for publishing ''Indepen,'' an AJI magazine not licensed by the government.
These actions step up an intimidation campaign intended to mute journalists' criticism of the government.
The tactics in East Timor are less subtle. Paid ''ninja gangs'' of thugs have been employed recently to intimidate those still brave enough to advocate independence from Jakarta. This is an alternative ploy to outright attacks by government troops on civilians there.
The US stopped a military training program with Indonesia in 1992 after government troops killed about 200 people at a 1991 rally in East Timor. The US ambassador to Indonesia now says the United States wants to resume the program, citing it as a chance to persuade the Indonesian military to respect international standards of human rights.
The danger is that it will be taken another way: Let bygones be bygones.