Asia’s Troubled Child


Like an uncaring parent, the world is turning a blind eye to the deepening crisis of its troubled Asian child Indonesia.

More than anywhere else in Asia, Indonesia was socially and economically destabilized by Asia’s financial meltdown. To this point it has not recovered. Now Indonesia is about to conduct its first free election since 1955. With blistering political rivalries at fever pitch, its economy in shambles, the military deeply divided and the Muslim majority facing off with Christian factions, Indonesia seems set for times of great destabilization, the effects of which will be felt far beyond its borders.

Indonesia comprises a vast archipelago of 13,677 islands extending 3,200 miles across the top of Australia’s northernmost sea boundary. Prior to the fall of President Suharto’s government last year, reasonable stability in Indonesia was gained by the huge sums of cash piped by the Suharto government into the Muslim-dominated military. When the money stopped flowing due to the Asian financial crisis, the country began to unravel, and Suharto was thrown from his dictatorial office by military pressure.

Stratfor Intelligence warned on May 10, “We fully expect economic problems to turn into social and political problems.” Old resentments and hatreds lay dormant but did not disappear.

Now fighting for his political life, President B.J. Habibie’s regime rules a mixture of languages, ethnic groups and religions exhibiting deep resentments—similar in scope and intensity to what we have seen in Kosovo. Indonesia’s neighbors are deeply concerned that Asia’s island bridge is about to burn—with catastrophic consequences. It is Southeast Asia’s stick of dynamite.

Tensions on the island of East Timor constitute the fuse set to ignite the inevitable explosion. In 1975 the island gained independence from Portugal, only to be immediately invaded and occupied by then-President Suharto’s Indonesian forces. Since that time the East Timorese have been fighting to regain their independence.

The population in East Timor is almost totally Catholic. Tensions between them and the Muslim Indonesian occupying forces are high. Massacres of Timorese Christians and torching of Catholic churches by pro-Muslim tribal factions occur every day. (Pope John Paul II visited East Timor in October 1989, urging the Catholic majority to continue their crusade for freedom. Watch the Vatican for its further involvement in this Indonesian powder keg.)

The East Timorese are hoping for intervention from outside. The international community, however, is sitting idle. East Timor voted in August on independence from Indonesia; the results will most certainly favor breaking away (rather than remaining an autonomous part of Indonesia). While the elections were relatively peaceful, it remains to be seen when the votes are counted whether or not the pro-Indonesian militia will accept the decision—or try to wreak havoc. “The UN, it seems, is unwilling to avert such a catastrophe. It is reluctant to install a sufficient military presence in East Timor to help keep the peace between winners and losers after elections in late August. Instead it will be the Indonesian military’s responsibility. That, on the military’s record in the territory, is a disturbing prospect” (Sydney Morning Herald, Aug. 7).

One thing is certain. A new East Timor—whether an autonomous region within Indonesia or a fully independent nation—is about to emerge, with or without UN intervention.

Once again, UN chief Kofi Annan, who referred to Saddam Hussein as “a man I can do business with,” seems content (as in Kosovo) to fend off regional conflicts by allowing local political powers to work things out. The UN is allowing Indonesia to exploit religious differences within both that country and East Timor, which will certainly lead to greater unrest in the region. They gravely underestimate the potency of the poison of a destabilized Indonesia.

The increasing distance of the reality of events on the ground to the paper-and-ink policies of the UN as world protectorate is rapidly increasing. The paper may contain an air of authority in the halls of the UN, but it receives no more than contempt from the locals on the battlefront of the islands of Indonesia.

In the absence of a strong UN policy, Southeast Asian nations are trying to band together to create some form of cohesive military presence to keep the peace. Vulnerable Australia has assembled 6,000 troops on the Northern Territory border ready to dispatch to the Indonesian ring of fire.

These dire events carry with them grave implications for the U.S., China, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. Regional pundits are not so much asking whether Indonesia can hold together, but how far the country’s disintegration will go before Asia’s island bridge burns.