Will the real leader stand up?

As UN ambassadors meet to discuss E. Timor's chaos, many ask who has

The military of this archipelago nation veered off a collision course with its own government and the international community yesterday, denying plans of a coup and restoring at least the semblance of order in East Timor.

By rattling its sabers in Jakarta and leading a killing spree through East Timor, the armed forces reminded both their own president and world leaders that they are still a force to be reckoned with. They may have won both battles but lost a war in leaving their country looking less stable than ever.

General Wiranto, commander of the armed forces, appeared confident as he sauntered into the presidential palace yesterday, dressed in a beige civilian suit and a traditional Indonesian black cap. Checking his appearance in a giant palace mirror, he seemed a man in charge.

As President B.J. Habibie joked with the press during a meeting with five United Nations ambassadors, he looked decisively less statesmanlike. This joviality has been his trademark, but it may now reflect a shift in political positions of the general under his command and himself.

Mr. Wiranto smiled dismissively when asked about the rumors of a coup buzzing through Jakarta. "It's all garbage," he said.

One aide to Habibie suggests, however, that the rumors were Wiranto's own making, a veiled threat in response to a very real argument between the two over how to respond to a UN deadline for Indonesia to either halt its killing spree in East Timor or accept a foreign intervention.

"The president has not closed the possibility of inviting an international peacekeeping force," says Umar Juoro. "The military and the foreign ministry are very much against it. But if there is no improvement in East Timor, Habibie could replace the chief of the armed forces."

Nothing happened, however. Both men kept their jobs, and the streets were free of the tanks and troops that had dominated the city last year when President Suharto resigned amid a power struggle that came very close to civil war.

Some conclude that the rumors have been exaggerated. Both men are unpopular and lack a credible replacement, and with less than two months to go before presidential elections, they have few motives to topple the other now. "They are sailing on the same boat," says Salim Said, a military expert. "Neither of them can afford to toss the other overboard."

But others take them seriously. "Maybe the coup already took place," one Western diplomat said. "Wiranto has placed himself above the person who is supposed to control him. You can call that a coup."

Analysts differ on the extent to which Habibie's position had weakened because of his tiff wi Wiranto. While some say Wiranto had simply blocked Habibie from interfering in East Timor, others note he may have told the president that the military would not support his reelection and could even force him to resign early.

Wiranto is believed to harbor presidential ambitions, but he may simply have switched sides to Megawati Sukarnoputri, a popular presidential candidate whose party won general elections in June. Analysts believe a series of embarrassing leaks alleging corruption by Habibie and close aides were initiated by military intelligence; the differences over East Timor may have been the drop that spilled the bucket for the military.

Indonesian military vs. UN

A similar cold war has pitted the Indonesian military against the UN and some of its major members. The military seemed to ignore threats by US State Secretary Madeleine Albright and other world leaders of intervention and economic sanctions in recent days, continuing its rampage through East Timor.

Witnesses on the ground said soldiers shot at UN staff, assisted local militia in rounding up and killing pro- independence activists, deported thousands of others and plundered and destroyed anything of value in an apparent scorched-earth tactic. In the cities of Baucau and Dili, nuns and priests were found murdered on Wednesday and Thursday.

The military knew that the threats of the outside world rang hollow. "The dilemma is that Indonesia matters and East Timor doesn't," one diplomat said.

While few foreign governments would admit to supporting Habibie or Wiranto, many are worried that strong foreign pressure could bring down not just these leaders but destabilize the whole government. Even economic sanctions, they say, could send the fragile economy into a tailspin.

"We don't want to push Indonesia back into the Stone Age," says one diplomat. "And we're afraid this could cause a nationalist backlash."

That said, few saw how the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other lenders could get political approval from their members to give new loans, badly needed to fund next year's budget deficit, amid the worldwide outrage over the way Indonesia's military assisted local militia in killing and deporting thousands of Timorese.

By yesterday afternoon, however, people in the beleaguered UN compound reported the city had gone quiet and food had been delivered. Eager to avoid the embarrassment of the UN fleeing East Timor when Indonesia had promised to guarantee security, Wiranto persuaded the UN to postpone evacuation of its staff by 24 hours. UN employees in Dili also expressed a desire to stay put.

While it was too early to speak of a trend, some diplomats suggested the military had either reached its objective or scaled down operations to avoid all-out conflict with the outside world.

"It's a lot easier to declare something safe," says a Western diplomat, "when you've basically denuded it of people and there's nothing left to loot."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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