Editorial & Opinion
Rumours about the health of the president have shaken the country as it struggles with an economic downturn.
Newspaper readers in Indonesia are well trained in reading between the lines. Now they are putting that skill to the test again after Cabinet Secretary Moerdiono unexpectedly announced that President Suharto had cancelled a planned trip to Iran to take a 10-day rest.
Murdiono said Suharto was exhausted after a 12-day trip that included stops in Namibia, South Africa, Canada and Saudi Arabia, and that doctors had advised him to rest instead of heading for the three-day summit of Islamic nations meeting in Tehran.
''He could hardly rest during the tour because he always worked, often until late at night, to prepare for the summit and to monitor domestic economic developments,'' Murdiono explained, adding quickly that his boss was in good health and would remain in charge of state affairs.
But in Indonesia, where the free flow of information is periodically restricted, such an announcement usually produces something opposite to the desired calming effect. Rumours soon circulated widely that Suharto had a serious health problem.
Wilder rumours had it that the 76-year-old leader had suffered a minor stroke, and even that he had died. Despite official denials, the stock and money markets slumped drastically. The rupiah hit a record low of 4,665 against the US dollar, down from 4,155 on Monday.
The Associated Press quoted a presidential doctor as saying that Suharto suffers from hypertension and kidney stones.
This is not the first time Suharto has had to cut down on official state functions due to health reasons.
In August 1994 he had to spend a night at the Gatot Subroto army hospital in Jakarta for treatment for the painful kidney ailment. Indonesian state-owned TVRI interviewed doctors and showed that Suharto had more than a dozen kidney stones.
In July 1996, less than three months after the death of his wife, Tien Suharto, Suharto went to Germany for a medical check-up at a health spa. He was given a clean bill of health.
Political observers swapped rumours that Suharto has been forced to take the long absence, the first since he took power in 1965, because he needed an operation. But such medical treatment needed to be carried out in secret as a public announcement would have probably have further unsettled the stock market.
Such news might also trigger wider speculation about his ability to remain in power -- despite expectations that the authoritarian leader is to be ''re-elected'' for his seventh five-year term in office in March.
Suharto was in Vancouver last month for the annual summit meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. He earlier visited President Nelson Mandela in South Africa and arrived in Jakarta this month after a stop in Mecca, Islam's holiest city in Saudi Arabia.
A medical source at the presidential palace said Suharto had been advised to conserve his energy on the long Apec trip and should even avoid playing golf, one of his favourite sports, with US President Bill Clinton, Canadian Premier Jean Chretien and Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in Vancouver.
Noted historian Onghokham said that speculation about Suharto's health had reminded the public of a similar problem in mid-1965. The late President Sukarno was then rumoured to have a serious kidney problem.
''The rumours said that Sukarno's kidney problem had reached an acute phase and he could only survive for six more months,'' wrote Ong in the Kompas daily, the biggest broadsheet in Indonesia, adding that the widespread speculation had prompted the Indonesian Communist Party to initiate a political coup against their army opponents and try to take power on Sept 30, 1965.
But the coup attempt backfired. Suharto, then a major general, consolidated the army in only five days and smashed the communists. It is widely believed that between 300,000 and one million allegedly leftist workers were killed in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt. Sukarno was sidelined. And Suharto rose to power.
''Gossip, rumours and speculation are always part of the Indonesian political culture,'' said Ong, explaining that the Sukarno rumours were later shown to be false. But, he noted, the widespread speculation proved more important than the real situation.
Ong did not say whether he thought history might repeat itself in Jakarta, but the speculation about Suharto's health could not come at a more critical time for the country.
By Monday, the fragile Indonesian currency had lost 48 per cent of its value since July. The financial crisis consequently led to the dismissal of more than one million workers, most of them newly-minted members of the middle class from the property and financial sectors. Food prices are on the rise. Economic growth is disturbed. Confidence is shaken.
Millions of workers still expect their employers to pay their annual bonuses as they prepare to make merry at four holiday celebrations: Christmas Day (December), New Year (January), Idul Fitri (January) and the Chinese New Year (February).
Idul Fitri, the Muslim celebration at the end of the fasting month known as Ramadan, is particularly important and is the biggest celebration in a nation where more than 90 per cent of its 200 million people are Muslims.
During Idul Fitri, Indonesian Muslims traditionally come home, prepare special meals, buy new clothing -- and spend more money. Observers say the economic crisis will start to bite when people find out that they don't have the money to spend on expensive food and new clothes as usual. More protests are expected in the industrial belts around Jakarta and Surabaya in eastern Java.
In addition to the financial crisis, is the long drought which contributed to the burning of Indonesia's forests on the islands of Kalimantan and Sumatra and has also negatively affected rice production in Indonesia.
A big question mark still hangs over whether the ailing Suharto can navigate the country through the turbulence. Even if he uses his old habit of harsh repression, will it be possible for him to keep control?