Looking for Edsa in Indonesia

What surprises me about Indonesia is not so much that Suharto has finally resigned as that it took so long for this much-awaited event to happen.  An unbowed Suharto was fast becoming a relic of a bygone age.  It has been 12 years since Edsa.  Suharto came to power at about the time Marcos became president.  The South Korean developmentalist dictators that set the pattern for NIChood in the region have all been removed from power, humiliated without exception.

Like all dictators, Suharto now attempts to control the transition, not so much to save face as to protect the life and property of his family. First he calls an election he hopes to rig, just like Marcos.  Then as the protest movements escalates, he steps aside to allow the vicepresident, B.J. Habibie, his protégé, to succeed him.  It is almost as if Marcos had stepped down in 1986 to allow Cesar Virata to become president.

Suharto fools no one.  He is trying to buy time, but time has run out on him and his regime.  Everyone knows Habibie enjoys no power base other than Suharto can provide him.  The old man wants him to rule until 2003, but Habibie would be lucky to remain where he is three months from now.

A lot depends on how the power struggle within the military is resolved.  The two major players there are General Wiranto, the Defense Minister and Chief of Staff, and General Prabowo, the Commander of the Special Strategic Forces around Jakarta.  Wiranto is known to be cool, moderate, and politically astute, while Prabowo, a son-in-law of Suharto, is temperamental, ambitious and flashy.  It is tempting to call it a Ramos-and-Ver scenario.  There are obvious parallels.

What is not so obvious is the conflict of economic interests within the military itself.  This is a society in which a large part of the army budget is raised through businesses owned by the military as a corporate unit.  On top of this, Indonesian generals, as individual entrepreneurs, are among the country’s top businessmen.  The state fed their accumulative instincts through behest loans and subsidies. In time, they became the core of the domestic bourgeoisie, linking up with foreign capital in various ventures.

The Suharto regime created them, but now they are determined to outlive their creator.  With the onset of the Asian financial crisis, it is now necessary for this section of Indonesian capital to sever its links with Suharto.  It is convenient to heap all the blame for the collapse of the Indonesian economy on the plunderous practices of the Suharto family.  The grasping tentacles of the Suharto octopus are so palpable that it is not difficult to focus domestic and international criticism on the Suharto family.  Its removal from power has become the condition for the restoration of confidence and stabilization of the Indonesian economy.

Divergent forces are conspiring to make that a reality.  First are the students who have kept up the protests in Jakarta and Central Java. Second are the anti-Suharto forces in the military that are quietly maneuvering to undercut the regime. Third is the business community whose prospects of recovering from the crisis grow dimmer as the uncertainty deepens.  And fourth are the Islamic groups seeking to provide the moral underpinnings for a new regime.

It is a movement in quest of a unified command.  In the Philippines in 1986, that command was supplied by a combination of human rights lawyers, articulate representatives of the business community, the religious, anti-Marcos politicians, and assorted social movement personalities.  That group joined forces at Edsa with the mutinous soldiers who had proclaimed their break with Marcos.  The peaceful resolution of the impasse during those four critical days of February 1986 was a product of smart moves, fortuitous circumstances, and American assistance.

Can Edsa be replayed in Jakarta?  The problem with history is that it teaches its lessons not only to those that seek to move it forward but also to those that seek to freeze it.  By now, General Prabowo will have reviewed everything that needs to be known about Edsa.   He will try to avoid the miscalculations of Marcos and Ver.  At the same time, he will be careful not to adopt the Tiananmen blitz against the student movement out of fear of provoking a premature confrontation with the anti-Suharto faction in the military.

What is alarming about Indonesia is the quiet volatility of its people. The culture admonishes them to avoid open confrontations.  So there is a tendency to gather steam, to contain anger, until the entire social fabric is stretched to its limits, and then everything explodes.  But a visiting Indonesian friend has told me that he is confident the mass killings of 1965 will not happen again.  The country was split in half in 1965, he said.  An anticommunist hysteria gripped the whole population and set relatives and neighbors against one another. Today, the whole nation is united against the Suharto regime.

There is every reason to hope that the Indonesians may invent their own Edsa.  It is always dangerous to construct a model from a single case, but, I told my friend, if there is one thing you ought to remember as you prepare to mount your own Edsa, is that a large part of this struggle is a moral battle.  The movement must be led by individuals who are themselves untarnished symbols of Indonesian courage and integrity.  That was Edsa’s principal strength.   People were willing to die because they knew they were fighting for a just cause.  Whatever one might think of her record as president, Cory Aquino personified that cause in 1986.  Our friends must find their own Cory.


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