Big Loan, Big Leverage: Will West Push Indonesia to Let Freedom Ring?

$43 billion IMF loan is a chance to demand political changes, say human rights activists.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In return for an internationally funded rescue package, the Indonesian government has agreed to make its trade practices fairer and its markets more open. But at the same time, some officials and activists are wondering why the world's powerful nations seem to be missing an opportunity to help Indonesia's people become freer.

The human rights situation here has worsened lately. Hundreds of Indonesians have been detained this year for protesting the government's handling of its economic crisis and some activists and students have disappeared.

"We've never been more important here," asserts one foreign official, speaking on condition of anonymity, whose country is supporting Indonesia's $43 billion aid package. And yet his government, he says, seems little inclined to use this newfound leverage to push Indonesia toward a more open democracy that shows greater regard for human rights. Is this an opportunity lost, he is asked? "To say the least."

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In the United States, 27 members of Congress recently asked President Clinton why the focus on reform is limited to economic policy. "How is it," they wrote to Mr. Clinton, "that we can muster the indignation, and subsequent pressure, to reverse an Indonesian government decision to implement a currency board, but we are unable to react similarly when fundamental human rights to religious, political, and economic freedom are blatantly trampled by the Indonesian government?"

And one of Indonesia's most prominent democracy proponents, Muslim leader Amien Rais, recently argued that "it is high time for the Western powers to pinpoint to [President] Suharto what he has to do with political reformation, or all the economic reforms will not take place as we want."

In his 32 years in power, Mr. Suharto has constructed a political environment in which he is the arbiter of what is acceptable. His government effectively controls who can and cannot participate in politics. Publications that run afoul of fuzzy rules face closure. "What is impermissible?" muses one Indonesian journalist, also speaking on condition of anonymity. "That is hard to say. Everything is so vague, so you have to practice self-censorship."

Indonesia is a conglomeration of islands of different cultures and traditions, and the government has been ruthless in its suppression of breakaway movements, citing the need for stability and cohesion if the country is to prosper. From 1989 to 1993, some 2,000 civilians in the westernmost province of Aceh were "unlawfully killed" during military counterinsurgency operations, according to Kerry Brogan, Indonesia researcher for the London-based human rights group Amnesty International.

Indonesian officials have been reluctant to heed human rights criticism from international groups or foreign governments, noting that they have done much to improve other aspects of human well-being, such as access to food, education, and health care. As Suharto told the United Nations in 1992, "[T]he objective of human rights is the realization of the full potential of the human being, and human potential is not confined to the political."

But the government nonetheless created a national human rights commission in 1993, giving Indonesians worried about violations a place to turn. The commission has proved relatively independent in criticizing the government, even though it is unclear how many of its recommendations are put into practice.

In the past few months, attempts by Indonesians to realize their potential politically, as Suharto might put it, have been risky.

At least six politically active Indonesians are missing but believed held by the authorities, according to Amnesty International, including Haryanto Taslam, an aide to one of the government's most prominent critics, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Two activists on Amnesty's list of disappearances returned to their homes on April 3, but nearly 20 people in the city of Yogyakarta have not been heard from since demonstrations there early this month. Still others are being held incommunicado by police.

Of the 371 Indonesians detained for peaceful political activity since Jan. 1, Amnesty says, 140 are still in custody.

Although foreign government officials say they are worried about this situation, the world's leading nations have long been loath to press Indonesia too hard. Aside from being a populous and strategically located country, Indonesia has been a magnet for foreign investors in recent decades, and governments have been careful not to wreck their countries' welcome.

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