the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world













1998 May 17

Indonesia is tremendously populous, and relatively poor. It is unfortunately not democratic. Suharto may have presided over an increase in the average standard of living in Indonesia. But he and his family looted the country exactly as the poor of Jakarta have this week. And as their actions show, the benefits of Suharto’s economic policy did not help the entire populace equitably.

The riots and looting were not the truly interesting story from Indonesia, though. Suharto is an old-fashioned military strongman, regardless of what hat he wears. He came to power through the army, and he stays in power through the army. And more and more of the people of Indonesia are unwilling to accept that. He may destroy the opposition this time. But they will rejuvenate, and return to the streets of Jakarta, and will be stronger and more resistant. Bill Clinton has repeated the tiresome formula that the people of Indonesia must decide what to do about their government, when he knows well that the decision is being kept from them. Such self-interested ignorance must be disheartening to the people. But oppressed peoples of the world should have learned by now that the democracies of the world are internal democracies only, and like ancient Athens and Rome will behave in the wider world like any other state, pursuing economic gain through geopolitical gamesmanship or even conquest. The people of Indonesia seem clear about whom they can rely upon to help them -- only themselves. Sooner or later they will settle the matter themselves, though it will be most sad if the failure of outside support requires more of them to sacrifice their lives, as brave dissidents must always do to bring down a tyranny.

1998 May 24

It remains to be seen if the departure of Suharto and the ascension of B.J. Habibie was a positive development. It is true that Suharto gave up the aggrandizing position of president and the opportunity of further refining his historical image, which is a sacrifice for a dictator. He removed himself from the purported constitutional structure, which is a risk for a dictator. Both suggest that his resignation was less the ploy some would have it, and more a result of weakness. He may intend to rule by proxy, but he had rejected that possibility before, in favor of adulation and a place in history, so it is unlikely that he is acting now out of a grand scheme. His hand was forced, and that would indicate that it can be forced again. Neither Suharto nor Habibie nor even military chief Wiranto can emerge from this process in Suharto’s former position, regardless of how many counterdemonstrators they bus in.

But what is needed is a new structure, not a new figurehead. And the pledges of a democratic transition and a truncated term were gone with the change in president. The growing dissident movement presumably will not be misled by this cosmetic alteration. They certainly will not allow Habibie to remain in office until 2003. They have lost their most visible symbol of tyranny, but they are opponents of tyranny itself, not one practitioner. They can celebrate an important victory, but there is much left to do.

1998 June 7

Wary optimism would seem to be the appropriate standpoint for viewing the situation at present. B.J. Habibie, or whoever is actually in power in Indonesia, seems to have accepted that genuine political reform must happen. As yet the actions taken have not been overly substantial, but there have been moves towards open society (notably with regard to press freedom), towards democracy (or at least transition to democracy), and away from the corrupt economic system of the past. But there are two actions that clearly must be taken, and are not of a sort that require delay or cautious movement. The government of Indonesia needs to be handed over to its populace, through a free and fair election, and the supposed personal wealth not only of Suharto and his family but of all his cronies and their families must be reclaimed for the state, and used to facilitate Indonesia’s economic recovery.

The amount expropriated by the Suharto family alone is rated around $40 billion. If all the looted wealth were accounted for, the figure would be much higher, and as such would represent an enormous asset to an economy such as this. Whether Habibie, who stands to lose himself, and whose family stands to lose, can preside over this very important reform is akin to asking whether he is superhuman. More likely, the transition will be handled in such a way that the retention of the amassed fortunes is given color of law, and the next government will be forced by the capitalist states of the world to abide the loss. Dictators always enrich themselves at the expense of the lands they rule. They always treat state property as personal property and attempt to retain it after leaving power. Minoritarian or segregationist regimes, so often from Europe or the European diaspora, have enriched the privileged classes in their various societies in the same way, and then ensured that these classes would retain their economic privileges after they lost their exclusive political rights. South Africa is the best recent example. The capitalist states supported the property coup there, and may well do so in Indonesia. They are interested in the smooth functioning of the global capitalist economy, and above all in preserving its veneer of legitimacy. But if they do not act in concert with a popular government of Indonesia to see that all “personal” assets of the departing ruling class are restored to Indonesia as a whole, they will do more damage to the already-vacuous idea of private property than a strategic retreat would cause. But the capitalists are, on some level, aware that the private-property systems in their own countries rest on conquest and expropriation, and may not know to quit while they are ahead.

1998 June 21

B.J. Habibie, warming to his role as dictator in Indonesia, is looking to put Suharto’s claim to East Timor beyond dispute. He will grant limited autonomy to the area, if the rest of the world will essentially guarantee that Indonesia can rule there forever. This formula has been very successful for China in gaining sanction for its occupation of Tibet, and in practice has meant little or no autonomy. It is the model proposed by the global state consortium for Kurdistan and Kosovo, among others. It is one thing (though not terribly admirable nonetheless) when the Basque Country is denied a seat among the nations of Earth; at least it lives under a democratic Spain. But East Timor, Tibet, Kurdistan, Kosovo: these peoples have no say in their governments, are ruled by dictators, and still the democratic states must reiterate the party line. They would; the prospect of a truly sovereign Navajo Country lies down that path. No harm to you and me, perhaps, but a devastating blow to the fiction of the divine right to rule. What state does not know its own interest in the matter?

1998 September 27

Mahathir bin Mohamad is no hero, for Malaysia or for the humanitarian faction of Earth. Eventually such autocrats will draw attention to themselves, as Mahathir is doing now. After last week’s arrest of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir is now rounding up his associates and hounding his family. If he sees corruption in his rivals, he is projecting. If he seeks to expose a conspiracy to overthrow him, he will create one. SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS.

1998 October 11

Megawati Sukarnoputri has received the endorsement of her faction of the democratic movement for its leadership and ultimately for a candidacy in expected presidential elections. The support was unanimous, which was not especially surprising, given that this would be the faction that refused to accept Suharto’s forced ouster of Megawati from the leadership of the broader Democratic Party. Megawati may not be quite the consensus choice that Nelson Mandela and Corazon Aquino were, or that Aung San Suu Kyi will likely be. But she remains popular, and her position in a democratic Indonesia, should such a thing ever come to pass, should be determined by that popularity. If B.J. Habibie follows his mentor in attempting to thwart that popular support, he will simply postpone further the arrival of true democracy in Indonesia. He cannot rationally entertain the expectation of his own election. He must ensure, instead, that his successor, be it Megawati or Amien Reis or another, is a legitimate tribune of the Indonesian electorate. And that successor must take office soon.


Original version


Home of the Stewardship Project
and O.T. Ford