Mon, 07 Feb 2000

Reading the President

Whatever the limitations of the office, there can be no question that the President of the Republic of Indonesia is a powerful man. He is not only the country's head of government, but also its head of state. In addition, though he may be a civilian, as supreme commander of the Indonesian armed forces he has considerable say over the country's military, at least on paper. Furthermore, the Constitution rules that though the President cannot disband the national parliament at will, neither can the national parliament discharge him except through an extended and elaborate impeachment process.

Given all this, it is understandable that there is currently much criticism of President Abdurrahman Wahid -- or, to be more precise, of his unceremonious, easy-going style of governing -- in this time of crisis. His penchant for making seemingly ambiguous statements about all kinds of issues, from the most immaterial to the most serious, has of late particularly come under fire. In a country that has only just been liberated from over three decades of authoritarian rule and where timeworn traditions are still cherished, many people obviously are finding it difficult to adjust to having such a relaxed President at the helm during these difficult times.

The latest example of this revolves around the former chief of the military and current coordinating minister for political affairs and security, Gen. Wiranto. As commander of the Indonesian Military during the independence referendum in East Timor last year, Wiranto has been implicated by the National Commission on Human Rights in the wave of violence that swept across the former Portuguese colony in the wake of the overwhelming vote for independence in the territory.

Foreign human rights investigators in East Timor have accused elements of the Indonesian police and Army of having had a direct hand in the violence -- if not by actually planning and organizing the rampage, then by covertly arming and supporting pro-Indonesian militias in the former province.

With hundreds, possibly thousands, of East Timorese killed and hundreds of thousands more forced to flee the devastated territory, human rights activists in East Timor and elsewhere abroad are demanding that Wiranto be tried by an international tribunal.

Allegations of the Indonesian Military's direct involvement in the violence must be proved or disproved in an independent court of justice. But whatever the result, it is impossible for Gen. Wiranto, as chief of the military during those crucial days, to honorably escape responsibility for events in the territory, even if his is merely a crime of omission -- failure to stop the violence.

Under such circumstances, standing trial before an independent Indonesian court of justice would obviously be the best option for the former military chief. President Abdurrahman's call for Wiranto to resign from the Cabinet, as the President has explained, is meant to help the general avoid even greater pressure at home and abroad.

Most Indonesians will surely agree with the President on this point. What many of them find fault with is what they see as Abdurrahman's haste in calling for the general's resignation while overseas, apparently without first consulting the concerned authorities at home -- Gen. Wiranto most in particular.

Neither is this the first time the President has made such a critical call while abroad. Earlier, while visiting several Asian nations, President Abdurrahman called on "three or four" of his Cabinet ministers suspected of corruption to resign or be replaced upon his return. Strengthening the public's impression that the President lacked sufficient grounds to make such a call, clear follow-up measures to substantiate his suspicions never materialized.

Ever since his election as President of the republic in October last year, Abdurrahman -- though unquestionably bright and perceptive, and evidently loved and respected by many ordinary Indonesians -- has shown a talent for stepping on people's toes. Parliamentarians, political analysts and leaders have called on the President to rein in his penchant for making rash statements and bring a little more dignity to the office of the presidency.

However, unless time proves us wrong, we believe Indonesians would do best to get used to this peculiar style of leadership which, after all, is and always has been uniquely Abdurrahman's. If they can learn to read their President's statements for what they are, Indonesians may find his style of leadership refreshing, rather than unsettling. Indonesians, after all, need to free themselves from the notion that the president is someone remote and powerful, who must be feared and at all times obeyed. At the very least, even in the brief time he has been in office, Abdurrahman has succeeded in helping Indonesians shed much of their excessive deference to power.