- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2003

Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Indonesian Security Minister Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono in Washington last week. As the remnants of Hurricane Isabel pummeled the D.C. area, the diplomats discussed two events that could cause untold man-made destruction to the Southeast Asian nation: terrorism and next year’s Indonesian election. While bilateral cooperation between the two on-again/off-again allies is imperative in the fight against global terror, the United States must be careful not to look as if it is exerting too much influence in Jakarta’s internal political matters.

Next summer, for the first time since gaining independence from the Netherlands in 1949, Indonesians will directly elect their president. A parliamentary form of government has been in practice since President Suharto’s military rule collapsed in 1998. The transition will be complicated. National elections are not an easy undertaking in a country of 240 million persons in an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands stretching over 3,200 miles.

One wild card is ethnic violence in many of the country’s 32 provinces. This is largely the fault of the late President Sukarno, the father of Indonesian independence, who wanted to use the melting pot to create an Indonesian national identity. His policy of transmigration, which his successor Suharto adopted, forcibly relocated millions from one island to another in an attempt to dilute regional loyalties. This created animosities among those who didn’t want to be mixed together, and still don’t. The military must keep a lid on these local disputes, especially during elections, when clashes at polling places are common. After 32 years of military rule, intimidation and tampering by soldiers are still electoral problems.

The popularity of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter, is at an unprecedented low. A recent poll by the Jakarta Post shows that 56 percent of Indonesians are dissatisfied with the current government. There is worry that a direct election in the world’s most populous Muslim nation could bring to power a proponent of Islamic law, such as the radical vice president, Hamzah Haz. The election of Mrs. Megawati may represent the best chance that Indonesia will remain a secular state. In recent years, U.S. ambassadors have occasionally inserted themselves into local politics when they should not have, pushing for ministerial appointments. Indonesians resent it. Particularly at this volatile time, American diplomats should be careful and discreet.

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