Indonesian High-Tech Minister Seen as Influential Foil to Military

IN a vast hangar near the city airport of Bandung, United States Federal Aviation Administration officials pored over a full-scale mock-up of Indonesia's latest push into high technology.

On display for the American officials' scrutiny was the new N-250 aircraft, a sophisticated commuter turboprop that its producer, Industri Pesawat Terbang Nusantara (IPTN), hopes to get certified for sale and production in the United States.

The aircraft plant in this central Javanese industrial city is key to a plan to leapfrog Indonesia from third-world poverty into a high-tech future, the controversial vision of influential Minister of Research and Technology Bucharuddin Habibie.

``Indonesia is very ambitious in trying to corner the commercial [aircraft] market,'' says a US adviser at the aircraft plant.

Buttressed by his close friendship with President Suharto and a costly industrial empire, building aircraft, helicopters, and ships, Mr. Habibie has surged into prominence as the high priest of high-tech.

He is also a powerful contender in the murky world of Indonesian politics, which is controlled by the military and dominated by Suharto, a former general who has ruled for a quarter-century.

Critics charge that Habibie is intoxicated with his own dreams of technological success and that his schemes are too expensive for a developing economy.

But Habibie's influence has been on the rise as high-tech minister, head of an Islamic revivalist group, behind-the-scenes political player, and foil to the country's military.

In June, Habibie again seemed to surge in influence when he became the center of controversy over the closing of three prominent magazines. The move, Indonesian analysts say, has dashed a climate of press freedom and openness and led to violent confrontations between demonstrators and the police.

The shutdown of Tempo magazine and two other news weeklies, apparently on Suharto's orders, was triggered by candid reports of dissent within the government over the purchase of 39 former East German Navy ships and accounts of the involvement of Suharto cronies in a banking scandal.

In a comment following the government crackdown, Suharto warned that ``those involved in information, communication, and mass media should realize ... [their] responsibility to the nation's interest.

``We want to create a climate of openness which supports development, but not create an attitude which could lead to unrest ...,'' the president said.

Habibie had long earned the wrath of the military by intervening in major military purchases and sidetracking lucrative commissions that had once gone to generals.

But by arranging the purchase of the East German warships and approving a $1.1 billion refitting, he set himself further at odds with the military chiefs and their political allies who said it could be done for much less.

Habibie's growing profile has thrust him into the heart of the debate over whether a civilian or military figure will succeed Suharto when the 73-year-old leader steps down.

The minister has also become something of a kingmaker and the chief focus of military opposition within the ruling Golkar political party. In recent years, Habibie has been successful in catapulting a number of prots into leadership positions in the party and government, creating a civilian challenge to military dominance.

Western and Indonesian economists question how long Habibie's aircraft and ship industries will be allowed to sap state finances. Although the government maintains IPTN makes a small profit, a Western economist said the operation is ``losing money disastrously.''

Last year, the World Bank, one of Jakarta's biggest donors and a strong advocate of Indonesia's economic liberalization and rapid growth, challenged government support for high-tech industries and Habibie's policy of ``technological leapfrogging'' so that Indonesia can catch up with more developed countries.

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