International Herald Tribune 
Paris, Friday, June 5, 1998

From Indonesia, a Warning to Asian Authoritarians


By Gerald Segal International Herald Tribune
KUALA LUMPUR - The revolution in Indonesia that brought down President Suharto is clearly not over yet. The economy is in deep crisis, and new political forces, freed of many of the constraints that muzzled them during the 32-year Suharto era, are only beginning to maneuver to replace his designated successor, President B.J. Habibie.

 But the most dangerous period of uncertainty is probably past, and we can start to see how the aftershocks of the Indonesian political earthquake are being felt in Asia and beyond.

 The most powerful tremors are rumbling through the more authoritarian parts of the region because of what is glibly called triumph of ''people power.''

 To be sure, the removal of Mr. Suharto owes much to the diverse activities of powerful generals, rival politicians and groups of students and nongovernmental organizations.

 Such ad hoc and disparate forces brought down President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines in 1986 and just failed to unseat the Deng Xiaoping regime in China in 1989.

 Recent events in Indonesia clearly alarmed the Chinese authorities. That was clear when they pulled the plug on CNN's live coverage of Mr. Suharto's resignation speech. 

The message for Kuala Lumpur about the risks of an old man outstaying his welcome are obviously understood. Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's words on this page on Tuesday (in ''A Wave of Creative Destruction is Sweeping Asia'') show how events in Indonesia are emboldening opponents of Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad.

 As authoritarian regimes contemplate the power of their people, they might also note the power of the IMF to bring about far-reaching political change and lay the basis for a more stable political system.

 As the crisis in Indonesia gathered pace, there were many voices urging the IMF to soften its conditions for providing emergency loans. Even Australia called for a go-slow approach of efforts to strike at the heart of the Suharto crony network by attaching politically sensitive conditions to aid.

 The IMF mostly resisted softening its position, and in the final stages before Mr. Suhar-to's resignation made clear that the money would be withheld unless far-reaching reforms were undertaken.

 While the IMF was only one of several key pressure points on the Suharto regime, the firmness of the its response was a crucial indicator that the international community viewed Mr. Suhar-to's departure as essential. As a result, an IMF used to being criticized by liberals for supporting big business and dictators emerged as one of the main agents of ''people power.''

 Such a more politicized role for the IMF raises major questions about its future role around the world. Will it now feel emboldened to make major decisions about political outcomes? Does it need to develop far more expertise on the political and social dimensions of ''good governance''?

 The earthquake in Jakarta is also beginning to shake the fragile regional institutions of which Indonesia is a leading member. The Association of South East Asian Nations has long considered Indonesia to be its center of gravity. ASEAN's enlargement in recent years to include the authoritarian regimes of Vietnam, Laos and Burma had led many to believe that it would take a tougher line against supporters of human rights in international forums, leading to a warming of relations with China. A more democratic Indonesia suggests otherwise.

 Liberalization in Jakarta also tilts the ASEAN balance in favor of ''constructive involvement'' in the domestic affairs of member states. The debate about how extensive such involvement might be was already gaining intensity with the impact of the pollution in the region that spread from Indonesian fires, as well as of the controversy over whether to allow Cambodia under its strong-arm ruler Hun Sen to join ASEAN.

 It now seems more likely that ASEAN will take a tougher line on such issues, at least with Burma, which seems to be intent on intensifying repression of its people.

 A more outspoken Indonesia might have implications for South Asia. There are initial signs that Jakarta might be willing to lead a vocal effort in the Nonaligned Movement for condemnation of India and Pakistan after their nuclear tests.

 One thing is clear. When the fourth most populous country in the world has a revolution, even an incomplete revolution, the waves of influence will ripple out for some time.

 The writer is director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in London, and director of Britain's Pacific Asia Programme. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.