Friday, December 12, 1997

Health Scare: All Eyes on Indonesia's Suharto

The Nation
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?

Wednesday, December 03, 1997

"People Will Always Remember"

Interview with Jose Ramos-Horta

VANCOUVER, 3 Dec. 1997

In 1975, Jose Ramos-Horta arrived in New York as the representative of an East Timorese political party to address the UN Security Council on Indonesia's illegal invasion of his homeland. Then he received scant attention; the Cold War was at its height. Ramos-Horta continued to denounce the annexation despite frequent allegations from every corner of the world that he did not truly represent the East Timorese. The Indonesian government repeatedly refused to talk with him. He kept on speaking out.

More than 20 years later, in December 1996, to the shock of the Indonesian government, Ramos-Horta won the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize with his fellow countryman, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo. Was it a turning point for East Timor's spokesman?

He recently spoke with Indonesian journalist Andreas Harsono on the sidelines of the People's Summit, an alternative gathering of NGOs, academics, and unions within the framework of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation in Vancouver. The following are excerpts from the interview.

How does it feel to be a Nobel laureate? Travelling and speaking a lot, but you cannot go to your own homeland.

It's not easy emotionally, psychologically and physically. Some people do not realise how tiring, stressful and frustrating it is. But for 22 years I have been travelling back and forth, talking to people who want to listen to me, governments who want to meet with me and journalists who bothered listening.

But the status quo is still maintained?

Yes, which is what actually counts because it gives me one measure as to whether the negotiation at the UN auspices have made any real impact. We look at the situation on the ground and that has obviously changed. There's more pressure on Indonesia. There's more international sympathy and solidarity. So those who are on the battle front, inside Indonesian prisons, at least they have this consolation that they are not alone in this world. I think if you are a prisoner of a dictatorship, and you know that people care, it gives you more hope and will to survive.

I talked to an Indonesian general about three years ago. He said that diplomatically Indonesia had lost on East Timor, but not militarily. I asked him why he keeps staying, and he said if East Timor is gone, the other provinces will go.

I don't agree with the doomsday scenario that if East Timor is to go, West Papua and Sumatra would follow. I don't think it will happen. If that was the case, Indonesia would have been disintegrated a long time ago when Papua New Guinea became independent. West Papua has much more in common with Papua New Guinea than it has with other parts of Indonesia. But nothing has changed in West Papua. Sumatra also has much more in common with Malaysia, historically, linguistically, religiously and ethnically.

I don't understand the logic for that doomsday scenario. It requires local grassroots movements that do not exist, in terms of secession, in those places. There is discontentment, anger, resentment about the lack of political liberty, social injustice, environmental degradation. But so far I don't see that their movements are of a separatist and centrifugal nature.

The general said Indonesia has to wait for one more generation to make sure that East Timor belongs to Indonesia. He said the current, troublesome young generation has to go first.

This is possible if East Timor does not achieve independence by 10 or 20 years from now. The new generation in East Timor will no longer feel that they're different from Indonesia. Maybe they'll grow up feeling like Indonesians. But I have my doubts. East Timor's culture is centuries old. It goes through the oral tradition. People will always remember for generations about the heroic struggle for independence. And as long as there is repression, killing and torture, how can the East Timorese feel Indonesian? On the other hand, if today Indonesia is to stop killing, torturing and withdraws their troops, releases all political prisoners and gives a genuine local autonomy to East Timor, then five or 10 years from now, it could be the case.

What about the democratic movement in Indonesia? Is it significant to the East Timor question?

I believe that the destiny of East Timor and other parts of Indonesia are very much linked. It would be easier to find a solution with a democratic Indonesia. People like me, who want to campaign for independence, they could do it in Jakarta. No one would be bothered, like in many democratic countries. I could talk with the parliament. But at the same time, I believe that Suharto still has a chance to resolve the East Timor problem without waiting for a democratic Indonesia. Suharto has the power, the possibility, the opportunity to cut the losses.

What is your reason? There are a lot of players in East Timor.

I don't think any of the political or military factions in Indonesia alone can challenge Suharto. If Suharto was to make a dramatic move on East Timor, yes, some people would be angry. But what would they do? Suharto would gain a lot of international respect and support. Any faction against his policy would be much-criticised internationally.

The likely scenario would even be a big international economic package to reward the Suharto regime, which in turn could placate those who are upset with the loss of East Timor. One should not say that because we have lost so many troops, we should stay on. More are going to be killed. How many more soldiers will have to be killed?

But even democratic figures in Indonesia like Ali Sadikin and Megawati Sukarnoputri claim East Timor as a part of Indonesia.

I don't think Ali Sadikin knows much about East Timor. I think he knows the Indonesia of the 1960s and 1970s. He does not move much beyond that. If he was to visit East Timor first and travel around the world like Megawati, he would see that any regime coming after Suharto that does not address the East Timor problem will have even more difficulties with East Timor, internationally and locally, because any regime coming after Suharto will not have the power and the strength that Suharto has had over the past 20 years. Any new regime coming after a prolonged dictatorship is always unstable. It takes years to consolidate. They would not have the military means to continue to occupy East Timor. They need more international support to consolidate their power.