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An unlikely reformer is remaking Indonesia

In election rules and possible autonomy for East Timor, Habibie movesrather boldly.

By Sander ThoenesSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 29, 1999


Indonesia's president, B.J. Habibie, appears in a hurry to join the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev as one of the great - and unlikely - reformers of his time.

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Yesterday Indonesia's parliament adopted election laws, drafted by Mr. Habibie's staff, that should enable his 200 million people to vote in the first democratic elections in 40 years. Just a day earlier, the mercurial president said that he might ask the new parliament to consider granting independence to East Timor, half of a small island occupied by Indonesian troops in 1975.

These bold moves - reminiscent of Mr. Gorbachev's decision to introduce democracy to the former Soviet Union and let Central and Eastern Europe break away - follow Habibie's release of political prisoners, abolition of press censorship, and a host of other political reforms in his first eight months in office.

Like Gorbachev and F.W. de Klerk, the former South African president who dismantled apartheid, Habibie emerged from the old regime and was widely distrusted when he first took office and talked reform in May 1998, following the sudden fall of President Suharto. Like his fellow reformers, Habibie risks going too fast - and going down with the regime he is dismantling. But some believe his willingness to reform may create enough goodwill to get him reelected president by parliament.

Responding on East Timor

His policy shift on East Timor, believed to be his own initiative, was one of the most drastic moves Habibie has made so far. Occupation of the territory, and killing of as many as a third of its 1 million people, had long made Indonesia a pariah in the international community. The UN never recognized annexation and is brokering talks between Indonesia and Portugal, East Timor's former colonial power.

Last year Habibie surprised by offering autonomy to East Timor but rejected calls for independence or a referendum among the Timorese on the issue. Now aides say he still favors autonomy but was willing to let go of the territory all along.

"Why do we have to hang on to East Timor if it is hurting us so much and the Timorese feel so unhappy about it?" Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Habibie's foreign relations adviser, told the Monitor yesterday. "What we want is to preserve the unity of Indo-nesia.... I don't believe East Timor would be like a domino that would lead to the break- up of Indonesia."

Few of the political parties that would sit in parliament after the June election ever supported independence for East Timor, although their stance has shifted recently along with Habibie's position. A military spokesman called Habibie's policy change "wise and positive," easing fears that the Army would rally against him over the issue.

"But we are worried about civil war on the island," the spokesman added. "Who will maintain order when we have left?"

Some diplomats agreed, predicting the offer would actually exacerbate tensions on the island. Pro-Indonesian groups have clashed with pro-independence activists in recent days, killing at least three and sending thousands to flee villages.

"The military don't want to be seen to be involved but they have armed their proxies," one diplomat says. "I'm not sure what the military's game is."

Timorese pro-independence leaders were dismissive of Habibie's offer. Jose Alves, a member of an umbrella group of pro-independence groups in East Timor, said most Timorese favored a gradual move to independence, with a five-year transition government shared by Indonesia, Portugal, and Timorese leaders. "Then we can have a referendum," he says.

But Ms. Anwar said the choice was between autonomy, "as a final solution" or cancellation of the annexation, a move that would transfer authority back to Portugal. "Then it's up to them, "she says. "We don't want to be hanging on the stick of Portugal and the United Nations for another five or 10 years. Indonesia is always wrong, we never get credit for doing something right."

Going with the flow

Like Gorbachev, Habibie excels not so much in initiating reforms but in letting them happen. When he took office amid violent riots calling for his predecessor's resignation, he presumed he would complete Suharto's term in 2003. But continued student protests and warning from opposition parties persuaded him to agree to early elections.