- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

From combined dispatches

JAKARTA, Indonesia President Megawati Sukarnoputri broke with tradition this week when she failed to attend the anniversary of the victory over the 1965 foiled communist coup that led to the rise of Gen. Suharto.

The country's president has presided over the ceremony in every year since 1967, when Gen. Suharto rose to power. His successor, B.J. Habibie, and Mrs. Megawati's predecessor, Abdurrahman Wahid, attended the annual ceremonies.

Garibaldi Sujatmiko, a spokesman of the president's office, said no reason was given for Mrs. Megawati's absence at Tuesday's ceremony at the Lubang Buaya monument in East Jakarta, the site used by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as its base for the abortive Oct. 1 coup. The ceremony was led by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, coordinating minister for politics, social and security affairs.

Lubang Buaya, or Crocodile Hole, was where the mutilated bodies of six army generals kidnapped by the PKI rebels, including the chief of staff, were found in the shaft of an abandoned well.

The army, under Gen. Suharto, crushed the coup attempt. The PKI was banned six months later after a bloody crackdown in which up to a half-million people died.

Oct. 1 has since been commemorated as the day of victory over the communist threat and is known officially as "Sanctity Day of Pancasila." Pancasila is the five-principle semi-mystical state ideology.

Mrs. Megawati has been described as uncomfortable with politics. When she lost Indonesia's leadership race in 1999, no one seemed more surprised than she. Her acceptance speech ready after her party had won parliamentary polls, Mrs. Megawati choked back tears as lawmakers instead chose Mr. Wahid, an aged but popular Muslim cleric.

Many blamed Mrs. Megawati's defeat three years ago on her aloofness.

Nearly 15 months since lawmakers ousted Mr. Wahid for incompetence and elevated her, Mrs. Megawati has done little to alter that perception governing in a way that has given Indonesians a taste of political stability but has left reforms on the shelf.

Instead of going after corrupt judges and curbing the military's power, she is proving a detached president, valuing harmony over confrontation since achieving the prize many suspect she long believed was her destiny.

"She gives the impression that she is there because she thinks the presidency is her birthright or something," said Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, a minister in previous administrations. She acts "like royalty, like a queen."

Mrs. Megawati, 55, is the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia's founding president, reared in the palace where she now works. Her support among the masses stemmed partly from her name and the memory of the charismatic man who declared the nation's independence from Indonesia after World War II.

But Mrs. Megawati has proven as quiet as her father was vocal. Since taking power on July 23, 2001, she has avoided the media and public speeches, prompting some to see her reticence as a sign she sees herself in a regal light.

An aide in her Indonesia Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) said Mrs. Megawati's biggest drawback was her silence, but that she believed it was better to get on with the job quietly rather than ignite frequent political rows, as Mr. Wahid did with his inflammatory and erratic statements.

Nevertheless, diplomats and analysts say they believe Mrs. Megawati lacks a strong grasp of the details of governing a country that has struggled to emerge from the chaos sparked by the Asian financial crisis and the downfall of Gen. Suharto in 1998.

They said that in meetings with top officials, she sometimes turns up alone, raising the prospect of information not being passed down the chain of command in the absence of aides taking notes.

"She would be comfortable as a head of state, not a head of government. She sees herself as an important national symbol, but presiding over meetings, following things up, pulling people back into line, that's not her," said one Western diplomat.

Not having a dynamic leader running the world's fourth most populous country has affected several key reforms especially rooting out corruption, privatizing state firms and cementing civilian control over the military.

"She is uncontroversial in her approach and statements, which has helped create political stability. That is her biggest contribution," said former chief economics minister Rizal Ramli.

"But this is one of the slowest-moving governments in terms of decision-making."

Mrs. Megawati's coalition government defends its record, arguing it has calmed Muslim-Christian violence in parts of Indonesia, sold some assets under its privatization program and gradually moved to restore foreign confidence in the economy.

Another diplomatic source said that, despite Indonesia's problems, no one in the elite favors a return to autocracy.

However, Mrs. Megawati did raise eyebrows when she questioned this year if Indonesians were mature enough to elect a president directly for the first time in 2004 instead of using the electoral college that embarrassed her in 1999.

As for her distaste for wheeling and dealing, one political analyst said Mrs. Megawati can rely on her husband, Taufik Kiemas, to bridge gaps between parties in her coalition and cement partnerships ahead of the 2004 election.

The analyst took a different line from critics who said Mr. Kiemas' business interests and growing influence might hurt the president's re-election prospects. Mr. Kiemas holds one of PDI-P's parliamentary seats.

"Rightly or wrongly, it's Taufik who has the drive. He's an asset to her because of his political skills," the analyst said.

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