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Cooling Off Jakarta

May 29, 2001



A giant nation that straddles the watery crossroads of Asia, Indonesia still hasn't settled well into democracy after decades of rule by one man, Suharto.

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Now it's heading into a political crisis with the expected impeachment of an isolated president who's desperately warning that his country of many islands, ethnicities, and religions may split apart if he's ousted.

Abdurrahman Wahid, an Islamic leader from the eastern side of Indonesia's main island of Java, has been a chaotic leader since he took office in 1999, after the first post-Suharto free election. But his political opponents are most likely just interested in taking power, and are using corruption charges to try to unseat him.

There's nothing new in that kind of politics. But in Indonesia both sides can quickly produce violent protesters on demand. And the Army, which sees itself as the force holding the country together and as a check on political Islam, flexed its military muscle against Wahid last week after he threatened to impose emergency rule.

Indonesia's civic cohesiveness has always run thin. It's a nation pieced together centuries ago by Dutch colonizers. Outsiders can't help much in the current crisis, except by dangling more financial aid. But that's not enough to quell tensions in a few outer islands seeking independence, or to create a stable democracy.

Unlike other nations facing political upheaval, Indonesia matters more than most. It's a giant resource-rich nation of 225 million people, that controls vital sea lanes for commerce and navies. Its stability is Southeast Asia's stability.

At best, the power struggle can be moderated by cooler, less-political heads in the capital, Jakarta. At the least, Indonesia needs another peaceful transfer of power under democracy to provide a valuable lesson for itself, and to serve as a model for many other Asian nations.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor