Positive Steps in Indonesia

Indonesia's progress toward democracy four years after leaving behind more than three decades of dictatorship has been tentative. Ethnic and sectarian strife rends many parts of the country. The Army remains an outsized political factor.

But progress now has a little firmer footing. On Aug. 11, the People's Consultative Assembly, the country's highest legislative body, passed some groundbreaking changes in Indonesia's Constitution:

• It voted for direct election of Indonesia's president and vice president. (Currently those offices are filled by a vote of the assembly itself.)

• It decided to get rid of the 38 unelected seats in the national parliament reserved for the military. They'll be gone by 2004, five years sooner than earlier plans.

• The assembly also chose, to no one's surprise, not to impose Islamic law on the country.

Just how transformative these measures will be is open to debate. Some observers think the military will continue to pull politicians' strings. But direct election of the highest offices should spark genuine political competition. Politicians will have to listen more to the people.

The end of reserved parliamentary seats for the military was opposed by some uniformed hard-liners. But many top commanders favored it, wanting the military to concentrate on increased professionalism. Still, the Army has its hands deep in politics, to say nothing of extensive business dealings.

The vote on Islamic law reaffirms that this, the world's largest Muslim nation, is still inclined toward religious moderation, though stirrings of Islamic radicalism are evident.

Concern that Indonesia root out such seeds of terrorism was behind the recent US decision to renew military ties between the nations, including $50 million in antiterrorism aid. Such ties had been suspended after Indonesian forces committed atrocities as they exited East Timor before that territory gained independence. The trials of officers responsible for those acts are still pending. Washington should continue to use its leverage to see that such abuses are punished.

Meanwhile, every step forward in Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country and a key to stability in southeast Asia, is welcome.

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