JAKARTAStop worrying about danger. Worry instead about inertia.
Contrary to the reports of newshounds
scenting Al Qaeda in all corners of the Muslim world, Indonesia is mostly
peaceful. The threat is not Islamic extremism or national breakup. It is not
even descent of a young democracy into chaos that invites authoritarianism. The
problem is that six months into her presidency, Megawati Sukarnoputri is showing
her true self. As a symbol of national unity, of tolerance, of goodwill to all,
she is doing fine. As leader of a government facing huge tasks, she lacks
vision, drive or ability to communicate.
She affects a hands-off attitude that
lets problems fester. Her cabinet, initially lauded, vacillates in the execution
of mostly sensible policies.
For sure, very nasty things continue in
corners of the country - in Aceh, where secessionist violence is unabated, and
in the Moluccas and Sulawesi, where endemic Muslim-Christian conflict has been
fanned by interests using Islam as cover for other goals.
For sure, too, President Megawati's
stumbling response to Sept. 11 gained no friends in Washington. She missed a
chance to show off Indonesia's secular credentials and gain support against
Acehnese secessionists. Coming from a secular nationalist tradition, the leader
of the world's most populous Muslim country was inhibited by her own shortage of
Islamic credentials. She also lacked the self-confidence to turn it to
advantage, as did Presidents Vladimir Putin and Jiang Zemin.
However, Sept. 11 has made Indonesians
more aware than ever how different their religious and cultural traditions are
from the Islam of the Taliban or the ideology of Al Qaeda.
Aceh is a long-standing regional
secessionist problem. The Moluccas and Sulawesi are local communal issues.
Neither has natural links to Afghanistan or the Middle East.
The government has probably been right to
ignore and not confront jihad rhetoric from a few zealots. Attendance at
anti-American demonstrations in Jakarta has been pitiful.
The largest Islamic political party has
recently split over the extent to which the state should identify with religion.
Although the recent arrests in Singapore
have suggested that fanaticism is rife in Southeast Asia, extremism is more
likely to flourish where some Muslims feel that they are an oppressed minority
than in a secular state where they are the majority and where interpretations of
Islam are almost as varied as those of Christianity in the United States.
The real worry is the indecisiveness of
central government faced with assorted challenges to its authority.
These challenges are not surprising. The
nation is still trying to adjust to multiparty democracy and a new center/region
The center is often reluctant to try to
define the fuzzy limits in its favor. Hence its economic program has been set
back by a regional thwarting of the high-profile sale of a state cement
enterprise and by locally decreed minimum wage rises.
Mines and plantations are being disrupted
by illegal operations and local taxes. Price increases badly needed to prevent
the budget deficit from getting out of hand are being delayed.
Doubts swirl about the seriousness of
efforts to punish the more blatant Suharto era crooks. Rumors abound that the
groups which raped the banks in 1998 are buying back assets at fire sale prices
from the government.
Drift is particularly disappointing
because the president faces little near-term opposition. Parliament is noisy and
prone to outbursts of nationalism, but she has majority support. The major
parties are too preoccupied with internal squabbles or mired in scandal to line
up against her. A direct presidential election in 2004 should work in her favor.
Popular grumbles about disorder do not mean that Indonesians want a military
regime. The resource-based economy is resilient enough to keep growing at 3
percent without new credit or government stimulus.
Resilience, tolerance and compromises
have helped Indonesia through the worst of times. Fundamental change was
essential after President Suharto, and the banking collapse was always going to
be disruptive. The country has muddled through better than could have been
The lack of a sense of urgency suggests
that problems will be kept from boiling over - but will not be resolved. Several
issues will come to a head in the coming weeks which will give the president an
opportunity to stamp her mark on Indonesia's course. Most watched will be the
government's sale of Bank Central Asia, once the centerpiece of the Salim group,
the largest Suharto-era conglomerate. How it manages the sale, and who (if
anyone) wins will say much about whether the president wants to be more than a
figurehead, or whether cabinet inertia creates a vacuum for sleaze.
A wrong outcome would not be a
catastrophe, but it would be a signal that more muddling through, rather than a
big rebound, is the best that can be expected.