Indonesia's Transition

While most eyes are on Kosovo at the moment, thousands of miles away in Indonesia events equally terrible in nature, if not in scale, are occurring.

The Indonesian province of West Kalimantan, for instance, has recently experienced fighting between native Dayaks and Malayus and the more-recently arrived Madurese. The latter are the target of a terror campaign to push them from the province altogether. People have been brutally murdered and their houses torched.

Tensions are also running high in the Moluccas Islands to the east of the archipelago nation, and in Aceh province to the far west. Religious differences, primarily Muslim and Christian, add to the violence. In some areas, separatist movements are strong - as in East Timor, which appears finally to be moving toward independence, with Jakarta's blessing.

As in Europe's Balkans, this activity coincides, roughly, with the breakup of an old political system that long kept a lid on ethnic rivalries. But on closer examination, parallels blur.

Indonesia's ethnic strife is scattered geographically and has no central orchestration, unlike that in Kosovo. A national policy of "transmigration" has for many decades moved populations among the islands to relieve overcrowding. The frictions from that are still felt. But Indonesia's troubles also have a number of more-immediate sources.

Asia's economic slide of the past year pummeled Indonesia. National output plunged 14 to 15 percent in a matter of months. The country is slowly climbing out of that hole; its economy grew 1.3 percent in the first three months of this year. But the damage to individual livelihoods has been severe, and many people seek scapegoats.

At the same time, Indonesia is attempting a political transformation. Two elections lie just ahead: June 7 for parliament, and in September for president. The political competition is sharp, heightened by a newly free press that tends toward sensationalism.

International concern is not fixed on Indonesia as it is on Kosovo. Yet this country, the world's fourth most populous, is important to all of Asia and the Pacific. Vast amounts of shipping and commerce pass through its sprawl of islands.

As caretaker, President Habibe has made a start at reordering the country after decades of highly corrupt, one-man rule under Suharto. The coming multiparty elections - the first free ones in 44 years - will be vital tests. Mr. Habibe has also taken the bold step of offering the East Timorese a long-sought referendum on independence.

This democratic exercise, scheduled for August, won't mean much unless it's accompanied by an armed international presence to ensure a peaceful transition to autonomy or nationhood.

That, in fact, may be one link to the distant war in the Balkans. If NATO's effort to win autonomy and protection for an oppressed people succeeds there, the international will to undertake such missions elsewhere will be strengthened.

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