Unrest spreads in Indonesia

Students clashed with police yesterday, as the militia menaced Timorese

Standing near a makeshift infirmary full of trampled, tear-gassed demonstrators, Arif Dai vows to keep pushing Indonesia forward.

"I don't want this to be a military country," says the university student. "We won't stop until this country is democratic."

Events yesterday in two very different cities - Indonesia's skyscraper-bedecked capital of Jakarta and Dili, the dusty, devastated capital of East Timor - showed that transitions toward greater freedom can be dangerous, edgy periods. In Jakarta, dozens of student protesters were reported injured in clashes with police amid demonstrations over a tough new security law passed by parliament yesterday.

In Dili, the UN-mandated peacekeepers who are trying to make it possible for East Timor to claim its independence from Indonesia are working in increasingly tense circumstances. Yesterday bursts of gunfire from Indonesian soldiers - evidently into the air - and other shooting incidents rattled peacekeepers already anxious about the possibility of conflict with anti-independence militia groups.

And in West Timor, more than 200,000 people who have fled or been forced from East Timor are caught in an increasingly perilous limbo. International relief workers worry that pro-independence East Timorese refugees could face reprisals from militia members opposed to the presence of the international peacekeeping force in East Timor.

"The next few days will be absolutely critical because the anger over what is happening in East Timor could spill over into camps in West Timor," says Stephen Woodhouse, UNICEF's country director for Indonesia.

Last year, Indonesia's students rose en masse to protest the authoritarianism and economic mismanagement of then-President Suharto, who had ruled this vast nation for 32 years. When he stepped down in May 1998, the students felt that a democracy could be theirs.

But the transition has been slow. May's elections did not produce a clear victor, and the country now is in a period of political horsetrading until November - when a consultative assembly meets to elect a new president.

Recently President B.J. Habibie, Mr. Suharto's former protg, has been damaged by a money-politics scandal that makes many Indonesians feel as though nothing has changed. The international community has criticized the country's military for backing the anti-independence militias in East Timor, which have killed an unknown number of people and displaced thousands.

At the same time, many Indonesians resent the criticism, producing a nationalist backlash that tends to serve the military's political interests, as does Habibie's weakness. Adam Schwarz, an author and longtime student of Indonesian affairs, says, "The general conclusion is that the military has come out of all this stronger rather than weaker."

That strength frustrates the students, who worry the military will stifle democracy and that the new internal security law is a step backward. The measure gives the government the authority to suspend some rights and freedoms in times of crisis. "In an emergency, the law will give power to the military to do things that disregard human rights," says Alex Irwan, who works with a World Bank-backed group here.

But Gen. Wiranto, the head of Indonesia's armed forces, says, "This bill is not for the benefit of the military, the police, those in power, or the government. This law will protect the whole country in the long run."

Reports of three students killed could not be confirmed at press time, but if true, they will undoubtedly produce more protests in coming days. Yesterday, students and police clashed in three other cities as well, producing scores of injuries. The students, Mr. Irwan says, "will keep protesting," especially because yesterday's clashes turned violent.

Salim Said, a Jakarta-based political analyst, wonders how useful the law really will be for the country's leaders. "I don't think they'll have the guts to use it when they have a crisis. It will only deepen their problems with the international community because it will certainly be considered a violation of human rights."

In East Timor, the Australian-led peacekeeping force has been greeted with delight. The East Timorese say they can finally build their own country after 23 years of Indonesian rule. But the hard part is not yet over.

Anti-independence militias, created and partly backed by the Indonesian military, say they will fight the peacekeepers. They have uprooted much of the territory's population of 850,000, some of whom have fled to neighboring West Timor. Others hide in the mountains with little sustenance.

Journalists in East Timor report a growing sense of edginess, especially as new evidence emerges about human-rights atrocities apparently perpetrated by the militias. Yesterday peacekeepers discovered a well containing at least eight corpses in the backyard of a pro-independence leader's house. This followed the slaying on Tuesday of Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes, a contributor to the Monitor, who was killed in Dili.

In neighboring West Timor, a humanitarian crisis continues. Anti-independence militia members control many refugee camps.

"These people have to be given the choice to go back or not in an environment free of intimidation by the militia groups," says Michael Frank, country director of the US-based charity Catholic Relief Services. He says the majority of refugees in West Timor would go home if they could.

But those in militia-run camps risk death if they say they want to go back to East Timor, even though government officials insist that those who want to return can do so. Local and international relief workers in West Timor say that pro-independence East Timorese are being intimidated, harassed, and killed by militia members.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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