Helping a Big Democracy

America reluctantly takes on a new task in this post-cold-war world. It's not so much that it must deal with the strengths of other big nations but their weaknesses.

Russia and Brazil need big loans, China asks for free trade, and Japan requires handholding to save its red-inked banks. India and Pakistan need a referee in their nuclear-tipped battle of inferiority complexes.

Now a nation of 215 million people in Southeast Asia is spiraling into political turmoil amid sectarian and separatist violence. Its president, Abdurrahman Wahid, even apologized for a lack of leadership on Aug. 8, just 10 months after he took office.

In short, Indonesia needs help before it destablizes the region.

More money may bring relief, but it would likely be lost to corruption. Foreign troops might prevent outlying pieces of this vast country from splitting off, but maybe not.

Still, somehow the US must offer hope to the world's fourth most-populous nation that it can save its nascent democracy and reform its economy. Curbing Indonesia's military is one option for Washington.

Just two years ago, Indonesia was full of both hope and despair.

It had ended the 32-year authoritarian rule of Suharto (who now faces trial for corruption) and held fair elections that brought Mr. Wahid, a respected Islamic scholar, to power in a nominally Muslim nation.

But its economy had been laid low by Asia's currency crisis, and reform has been feeble under Wahid's divided and incompetent Cabinet.

Indonesia's plight challenges the idea that democracy and vast poverty can coexist. A humbled Wahid said it best: "Symptoms of national disintegration have welled up from primordial social conflicts. Our nation, which is very complex and filled with the roots of conflict, does not yet have the institutions ... to resolve them."

Wahid's moral authority has not been matched by an attention to the details of running a country. So now he's been challenged by legislators to relinquish much of his power. But finding someone with both economic wisdom and a commanding presence over a powerful military is no small task. Often, in other countries, such types don't honor a democracy. Suharto was Indonesia's example.

Indonesia can't afford the factional infighting among its political parties. Yet those parties represent the nation's own diversity, ranging from Christians to Muslims, from stone-age tribes to Jakarta skyscrapers.

A giant nation patched together by Dutch colonizers has had a rough half century of independence. Maybe now it needs some dependence on other nations to find its cohesion.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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