APRIL 28, 1997
International -- Editorials

INDONESIA SMOLDERS, SUHARTO FIDDLES

Indonesian President Suharto and his government are making sure their ruling Golkar party and its sanctioned political allies win the legislative elections scheduled for May 29. They have dedicated the pre-election period to quelling dissent by keeping opposition leaders such as Megawati Sukarnoputri muzzled and sentencing activists to prison on charges of subversion. So confident of victory is the government, it has "predicted" it will win a ruling majority of precisely 70.02% of the legislature.

Fanning the flames of discontent, violent clashes are erupting between ethnic groups in central Java and are gaining momentum. The conflicts are primarily between ethnic Chinese settlers and the Muslim majority. They cannot be allowed to continue. Suharto himself came to power 31 years ago when an attempted communist takeover led to a bloody pogrom pitting the military against the economically powerful Chinese minority. Up to half a million people died.

Political uncertainty is again generating instability. The elderly Suharto continues to maintain his grip on power without preparing for a smooth transition after his death. His cronies and even his own children have embarked on a power and money grab unparalleled in Indonesian history. Many of the country's most successful Chinese families are closely associated with the Suharto clan. This and the widening gap between rich and poor are exacerbating ethnic tensions.

The growing unrest should be heeded by the aging President. Rather than spend so much time and money dominating the elections, Suharto should be reforming the economy, lining up terms for succession, and curbing the excesses of greedy associates and family members. Unless Suharto acts soon, he will leave a legacy of ethnic violence, not economic growth.