Questioning a president's word

Indonesians aren't surprised Habibie may be protecting his discreditedpredecessor.

As if economic crisis, riots, and protests were not enough, Indonesian President B.J. Habibie now has a version of Watergate on his hands.

Mr. Habibie may face a parliamentary inquiry into a taped phone conversation that, if genuine, indicates he is discouraging a corruption investigation against former president Suharto, his longtime mentor. It is a liability that may threaten Habibie's presidential candidacy in elections later this year.

Public opposition to the vast wealth of Suharto family and friends contributed to Mr. Suharto's own downfall last May.

Television stations have relished playing a recording of what seems to be a conversation between Habibie and Attorney General Andi Ghalib, about separate investigations of Suharto and three business executives.

Habibie has ordered his military chief to investigate the leak but has yet to deny that it is genuine. Mr. Ghalib denied holding the conversation, but later recanted his denial when Habibie didn't follow suit.

On the tape recording, a voice resembling Ghalib's is heard as saying that he does not know when he can close a corruption investigation of Suharto, which was launched last year but has yet to name him as a suspect.

A voice resembling Habibie's is then heard suggesting that Ghalib focus attention on the businessmen, two who have been openly critical of the president.

Many other parts of the recording are so harmless that many analysts conclude the tape must be real.

Although denying having tapped the president's phone, Indonesia's military intelligence is presumed to have bugged hundreds of telephones of political activists, Suharto rivals, and foreign correspondents and diplomats. But nothing has ever been leaked.

WHAT surprises Indonesians, living for 32 years under the iron fist of Suharto, is that someone not only dared bug the president's phone calls, but also leak them to the press. Since Suharto left office amid protests for democracy and relief from a worsening economy last May, Indonesia's tentative news media have flourished with newfound freedoms.

One of the president's fiercest critics has called for Habibie's impeachment. "President Habibie's directives are much more serious offenses, more akin to [President] Nixon's," said H.S. Dillon, a member of the National Commission on Human Rights. The Indonesian constitution has no impeachment clause and parliament is unlikely to demand it, but members of the Muslim PPP Party want an inquiry. The Republika newspaper suggested that "The government must prove that Suharto can be treated equally as an ordinary citizen in the eyes of law."

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