TWO apparently unrelated crackdowns by the Indonesian government - one on the press and one in East Timor - signal a backward step into repression for the world's fifth most populous nation. They also highlight ongoing doubts that President Suharto, in his fifth consecutive term, is moving toward a fuller democracy that can keep the once-volatile Southeast Asian nation stable after he eventually leaves office.
In June, the Suharto government revoked the licenses of three weekly newspapers, including the country's preeminent news magazine, Tempo. The publications apparently had irked important people by reporting on corruption and disagreement within the government. The shutdown - accompanied by military violence against demonstrators protesting the move - came after a promising time in recent months when press freedom seemed to be growing.
Earlier in July, government troops again reacted with violence -
this time in troubled East Timor - a largely Roman Catholic ex-Portuguese island colony forcibly taken over by Muslim-dominated Indonesia in 1976. Demonstrators at East Timor University in Dili were beaten by police when they protested growing harassment of Catholics, including a recent incident in which troops had entered a church and disrupted a service. East Timor's Bishop Carlos Filipe Belo told Reuters that Catholics are constantly beaten and arrested. These incidents, too, come after a period of incremental easing of heavy-handed government repression.
The United States State Department and human rights groups expressed concern and regret at the use of force against the press protesters and are studying the East Timor situation while urging restraint by the Indonesian military.
Suharto, a longtime unquestioned leader, faces the issue of how to prepare for his successor. The road he has been taking toward more press freedom and respect for human rights is the best path into a brighter future. Indonesia should return to that path immediately.