Indonesia: Is Suharto Holding The Lid On Too Tight?

Now that he is in the twilight of his 27-year reign, Indonesia's President Suharto seems to be worrying about his place in history. He wants to be remembered as the leader who transformed Indonesia from an inward-looking, deeply impoverished archipelago into a modern economic power. That's why he's using his role as host for Bill Clinton and 16 other leaders at the Nov. 15 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) summit to champion a free-trade pact.

But Suharto's bid to cast himself as a modern statesman is full of contradictions. Although he calls for more political openness, he still rules like a military strongman. Since June, he has launched a sweeping crackdown that has included closures of publications, brutal beatings of demonstrators, and the arrests of many labor activists. "There's a vindictive streak in the government against anyone perceived as a threat," says Goenawan Mohamad, whose Tempo magazine was closed this summer.

Suharto justifies this hard-line approach by saying it's necessary to maintain social order in a potentially fractious country. Indeed, he gets credit from many Indonesians for maintaining stability in a land where Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism coexist, and where a potentially explosive income gap between the wealthy ethnic Chinese--who make up 3% of the population--and the remaining 190 million citizens grows yearly.

But the fear is that if the 73-year-old leader continues to keep dissent and social grievances bottled up, there will be trouble when he passes from the scene. Suharto certainly isn't doing much to assure a smooth succession. It is rumored that he may allow his Vice-President and trusted military aide, General Try Sutrisno, 58, to take over at the time of the next scheduled elections in 1998. But Suharto isn't acting like he plans to leave. He keeps such a tight hold on the military and his Golkar party that no challengers emerge. "If the succession is not well set up," warns human rights activist Abdul Hakim G. Nusantara, executive director of Jakarta's Institute for Policy Research & Advocacy, "there may be major political instability."

Analysts say that one of Suharto's biggest concerns in selecting a successor will be his family's financial interests. His sons Tommy, Bambang, and Sigit and daughter Siti continue to strike megadeals spanning property, telecommunications, cars, and petrochemicals. Suharto also continues to lavish subsidies on the controversial projects of technology minister B.J. Habibie, a close advisor. Habibie's biggest white elephant, a $1.6 billion plan to locally produce aircraft for export, has been panned by the World Bank.

SHOWCASE. Cynics wonder how sincere Suharto can be about dismantling trade barriers given these huge, protected family interests. The answer seems to be that he plans to lower barriers in a way that won't hurt his relatives and supporters. He has been no slouch as an economic manager, delivering an average of 6% economic growth since taking power in 1967, although per capita income is only $700. Gradually letting in foreign investment and opening the capital markets have played a role in growth. Insiders say that he's convinced another substantial opening is needed for another big growth spurt.

The summit and Clinton's presence will give Suharto a chance to showcase his country for tourists and investors. To prevent any embarrassing incidents he's banning protests and unauthorized meetings. Of course, there's always the chance of a major fiasco in front of thousands of visiting journalists--but Suharto will probably be able to keep the lid on. Still, at the rate Indonesia is changing, he's not going to be able to succeed with these tactics forever.

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