Wed, 18 Oct 2000

Yet another row

As controversy upon controversy continues to rock Jakarta's political scene with no sign of abating, the big question now seems to be no longer when all this is going to stop, but how.

Certainly, the President of the Republic discreetly meeting with a convicted felon -- former president Soeharto's youngest son Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra, who has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for corruption -- is highly irregular, to say the least, even if a year under the Abdurrahman Wahid presidency has taught Indonesians to expect not only the unexpected, but the inconceivable.

Was the meeting so vital to the nation? If so, why the hush- hush? The President only admitted to the meeting after it was leaked in the media. Tommy is known to have applied for a presidential pardon, which the President said he would reject. Then there was talk about the possibility of the President granting Tommy his request after all, but on condition that he "donate" some of the Soeharto family's wealth that is believed to have been stashed away in foreign banks, to the nation.

On this the government has remained silent. Still one might presume that the talks between the President and Tommy were to examine that possibility. Indonesians recall how some time ago the President assigned the Coordinating Minister for Political, Social and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono the task of negotiating with the ex-dictator's children for the return of some of the wealth allegedly taken by the Soeharto family. Nothing came of those negotiations as far as is known.

In the minds of Indonesians there is little doubt that such wealth exists. Geoff Hiscock, the international business editor of The Australian newspaper, for example, in his book Asia's New Wealth Club estimates the Soeharto family's wealth to stand at US$2.2 billion at present -- downsized from $6.6 billion before the onset of the financial crisis in 1997.

"... the ambitious sons and daughters of President Soeharto had built billion-dollar empires in property, banking, industry, telecoms, media, and transport in the 1980s and 1990s, the like of which had never been seen in Indonesia," Hiscock writes.

As speculation about the covert meeting has grown, neither the government nor the President's office has presented an explanation to clear up the befuddlement, whereas a speedy clarification could have prevented the issue from becoming controversial.

As things are, it is difficult to escape the impression that something fishy might be going on involving the President. Whether that will in the future be proven true or not, the consequences could be disastrous for the nation, already hit by the worst economic crisis it has ever experienced.

As for Abdurrahman Wahid, this unfortunate episode could provide ammunition for his political adversaries to make life even more difficult for the beleaguered President, even to the point of turning impeachment into a real possibility.

The country's highest policymaking body, the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), in one of its decrees, has instructed the President to bring to court all those who are suspected of having committed serious crimes of corruption, collusion or nepotism in the past. Violation of an MPR decree can push the Assembly toward holding a Special Session to impeach the President.

That would be all Indonesians need. In the end, the ones to suffer the most would not be Abdurrahman Wahid, but the people of Indonesia.