Courtesy Reuters

Indonesia After Suharto

CAN CHANGE BE PEACEFUL?

As President Suharto eases into his fourth decade of power over the world's fourth-largest country, the Bapak Pembangunan, or Father of Development, can pride himself on Indonesia's economic transformation. Routinely hailed by the World Bank as a model developing country, Indonesia posted another banner year last year; the economy grew 7.8 percent, slightly more than the annual average since Suharto's rule began in 1966. Exports reached $50 billion in 1996, double the 1991 volume. At current rates of growth, Indonesia could become the world's sixth-largest economy by 2010.

During Suharto's tenure, tens of millions of Indonesians have been rescued from poverty. A burgeoning middle class in the cities of Jakarta, Surabaya, and Medan lives in fancy new apartments and shops in gleaming malls. Foreign investors pour billions every year into new factories, putting the sons and daughters of poor farmers to work making everything from Reebok sneakers to Sony televisions. A stable and increasingly prosperous Indonesia provides ballast and leadership to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with Suharto playing the role of the region's elder statesman.

Indonesia has changed almost beyond recognition from the impoverished, fractious nation, distrusted abroad, that it was under Suharto's predecessor, Sukarno. The Sukarno era (1945-66) was defined by jockeying for power among three factions, one of them the Indonesian Communist Party, then the world's third-largest communist organization. Those strife-ridden years and the transition to the Suharto regime -- during which as many as half a million real and imagined communists died in communal violence that wiped out the Communist Party -- left Indonesians wary of conflict. Suharto's New Order government has worked assiduously to create the image of political stability and communal harmony that has earned the country the reputation of a safe haven for foreign capital. To get there, it abridged civil and political liberties and turned democratic institutions into hollow shells.

Recent unrest has shaken the aura of stability. The government's ouster of the elected leader of a political party triggered riots last year in

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