Indonesia Takes the Challenge

A large and little understood country, Indonesia has had more than a few years of living dangerously. And for sure, after the tsunami, it should never again hear the common misconception that it's part of Bali, the most popular of its more than 17,000 islands.

The tsunami that hit the northern tip of the island of Sumatra is the latest drama to draw attention to this country of 223 million people. Each drama has helped the young and diverse nation cement its new democracy and force it to reach for its potential as a global leader. On Thursday, Indonesia will again be in the spotlight as it hosts an international conference on post-tsunami reconstruction.

Major events began to cascade for Indonesia in 1997, when Asia's financial crisis slammed it hardest. That led to the peaceful overthrow of dictator Suharto in 1998, then later the election of an Islamic leader as president, followed by a woman president - notable in a mainly Muslim nation. Along the way, Indonesia struggled to keep half an island, the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, that it had invaded in 1975 but lost in 1999. After 9/11, it was the site of two major Al Qaeda-linked terrorist attacks on foreigners.

Since October, when retired Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected president, Indonesia has had its most competent leader ever since independence from Dutch rule in 1949. The nation is fortunate that he is its leader at this time.

But his mettle will be tested by how he reacts to the crisis and the loss of more than 100,000 Indonesians, not only in helping survivors but in creating opportunities.

His first opportunity was to open the country to post-tsunami aid, especially from the US and Australian militaries, which he did contrary to his nationalist instincts. He admits Indonesia's weaknesses in coping with this disaster. He also summoned scientists together and pushed them to set up a tsunami-alert system.

Mr. Yudhoyono can also use a post-tsunami truce between the Army and secessionist rebels in northern Sumatra to win over rebel supporters through effective relief. After that, he can win the peace by granting autonomy to the region.

Additionally, he can reverse Indonesia's reputation for corruption by assigning officials to the aid effort who are known not to have sticky palms for taking bribes.

Yudhoyono is on the right track in expecting a better future. As he said in a New Year's speech: "Let us reflect and praise God, praying that this disaster soon passes and is replaced with a new life full of hope."

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