Indonesia's Troubles
January 9, 1998

The Washington Post

Lead Editorial

SINCE INDONESIAN President Suharto's dramatic fall from power last May, things have not been going smoothly for the world's fourth most populous nation. Just in the past few days, some of the worst violence of the year has raked Aceh, a separatist-minded province of Sumatra 1,000 miles northwest of the capital of Jakarta. At least eight soldiers and 17 civilians have been killed, and many more injured, in riots and a subsequent crackdown. The violence is a sign of the deep trouble Indonesia still faces, even as other Asian nations begin to see glimmers of possible recovery.

Elections have been scheduled for June, and Indonesians across the spectrum agree they should take place after more than three decades of authoritarian rule. But no one should be lulled into believing that elections alone can solve Indonesia's troubles, even if the vote is free and fair -- a big if. Mr. Suharto's rule inflicted too much damage on civil and political institutions to expect instant recovery.

The damage is evident now in the gruesome violence taking place: Muslim against Christian, Javanese against Chinese, ethnic groups against each other. Neither the armed forces nor the police command enough respect to effectively defend law and order. Separatist movements gain in several regions and islands. Economic conditions remain dismal, with more and more children forced to drop out of school.

To all of this, the transitional government of President B. J. Habibie has offered few answers. Evidence that Mr. Habibie is mostly interested in preserving Mr. Suharto's authoritarian structures without Mr. Suharto has engendered suspicion in many quarters. Indonesians are much freer to express themselves and form political parties now than a year ago. But the Habibie government has shown far too little commitment to uncovering and punishing corruption and military abuses. Without such an effort, peace will be impossible.

The ability of the United States or any other outsider to help Indonesia in its time of trouble is limited. Budget-cutting forced the State Department in 1996 to close its only consulate on the northern island of Sumatra. Still, the United States can provide humanitarian aid, help for newborn civic organizations and technical assistance for the coming election. And it can do more to make clear it considers Indonesia's efforts to democratize vitally important, as in fact they are.

Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company