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Thinking through a new tomorrow

What should democracy activists do in these last days of the New Order? DANIEL LEV offers some pointers.

These days are full of rumours - that the Suharto family has fled Jakarta, that they are in Germany, that they are still in Jakarta. That Suharto fainted, that he didn't faint and was seen by the Russian ambassador. What do you make of this confusing situation?

We must be aware that we really do not know what is going on. But whether or not these rumours are true, it is clear to me that the New Order is almost over. Suharto cannot last much longer. Perhaps because of his health. Or - and this is more important - because the Indonesian people no longer accept his leadership, moreover in the present desperate economic situation which was caused by the government itself. That makes this regime very weak indeed. And now we are in transition to something different, the shape of which is still quite unclear.

If his family want to run away overseas because they are afraid, we need to ask why. Because they really understand the implications of the economic situation? Or because they have been confronted by the military leadership? Who wants them to leave? And why? All that is unclear.

Did Sukarno in his last days ever think of running away from his responsibilities?

I'm sure it never occurred to him! His sense of responsibility as a leader was very deep.

I know that when a hostile People's Consultative Assembly asked him to explain himself in June 1966 he came. And when they considered his report incomplete, he filled it in immediately.

Sukarno knew very well he was finished. Yet the most important thing for him was that he should exert all his energies to resolve the chaos of the moment.

I think Sukarno was genuinely worried about the large number of casualties. He felt responsible at that time. But the one we have now is completely different, that is quite obvious.

Right now pro-democracy activists are trying to establish a democratic agenda for transition. What choices do you think they have? What attitudes should they take?

The situation at the moment is extremely difficult and dangerous for everyone. Everyone is confused, no one is ready to deal with a situation that is changing so rapidly. In my view if the regime is really ending then the army leadership will take control for at least a while. No one else is as well organised.

Activists wanting change right now need to take a cool attitude, be cautious, preferably even be a little conservative. Because if indeed the army leadership is taking control of the situation, they too do not know what might happen. They are just as confused as everyone else. I think they will feel the need for help and because of that there may be an opportunity to negotiate.

I think it is very important for activists to be aware of that opportunity. So they will be ready to negotiate. They should not dream of great things but should be really cautious. That way there will be no useless sacrifices. That way no demonstrations will turn into riots, or be turned deliberately into riots. Activists should be cool-headed and cautious.

Which are the most important political ideas to discuss in the coming days?

If they want to confront the military leadership they should come armed with very clear ideas, ones that have been agreed on by the pro-democracy groups. I hope no one will be too egocentric and no one will want anything too 'crazy' or be too idealistic. These are the days to really play politics. They should be able to negotiate, to make offers and counter-offers until their most important conditions have been met. They must be able to set priorities.

For example, and this is very important right now, the press should be truly free. It is so necessary to have a lot of debate. People must have lots of information so they are not dependent on rumours. Secondly, all political prisoners must be freed now. All those activists in jail now should take part in the negotiations, push hard for their ideas, and gain experience in sensible politics. That way no group will feel it did not get an opportunity to participate in this transformation.

I also think it is very important that the various groups talk among themselves to determine their priorities. Besides a free press and the release of political prisoners, they must have ideas about what kind of change is the most important and what can actually be achieved. For instance, thought should be given to the question of which institutions are the most important to be reformed right now. Parliament? Political parties? Should there be freedom to organise as widely as possible so that new political leaders can emerge, younger ones with new ideas? And so on.

There should also be some kind of agreement among intellectuals, those who already have mature ideas on things. Among them people such as Gus Dur, Amien Rais, Arief Budiman, Marsillam Simanjuntak, Goenawan Mohamad, Muchtar Pakpahan, and others. They should not be too quick to stress differences in ideology. Whether they agree or disagree, all the political and intellectual leaders should take part in this discussion. A discussion with activists, and also with the military leadership if indeed Abri is going to take over.

There also need to be people with experience in running government, yet who still enjoy the people's trust. People like (Finance Minister) Mar'ie Muhammad, (Bank of Indonesia governor) Sudradjad Djiwandono, (Transmigration Minister) Siswono Yudohusodo, for example. Agree or disagree, these people clearly have experience, are honest enough, and they can help give leadership during a transition. I know my approach might sound overly cautious. Don't be too macho, too idealistic. Think about which changes can really be implemented.

The Indonesian economy is on the brink of destruction. No one believes in the rupiah any longer. Last Thursday the price of a US dollar reached Rp 12,500. All prices have gone up two or three times. Some essentials food stuffs - rice, sugar, cooking oil, baby milk - are difficult to find or are being rationed. How can confidence in the economy be restored?

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The most important thing right now is political change. This government cannot possibly any longer win the trust of the people. They are only supported by their friends and relations. The economy will continue to decline until there is a new political leadership that the people really trust. If the present political elite really wants to remain an elite they have to be serious about building a government that can be controlled and trusted by the people. That can only be a government that is honest, courageous enough to speak out and to admit the real difficulties.

What connection do you see between the political and the economic agendas?

The economy now is totally dependent on the politics.

What political steps need to be taken in the coming days?

Efforts are underway to bring together popular leaders. Can Amien Rais, Megawati, and Gus Dur come together? Can they negotiate? I don't know. But if they can meet they will give a wonderful example to be followed by others.

If there are differences of opinion that is only natural. They will always be there. But if they can just meet and begin serious negotiations - on the basis of their shared concern for a society in serious trouble - that would be a wonderful example. That would mean that Amien, Gus Dur, Megawati and others are responsible people.

Dan Lev teaches politics at Washington University in Seattle. He first went to Indonesia in the 1950s and has written extensively about politics and law. The interview was conducted by an anonymous interviewer in Indonesian on 8 January 1998 and appeared on Indonesia-L.

Inside Indonesia 54: Apr-Jun 1998

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