Indonesia's president Abdurrahman Wahid, who is nearly blind, moves among shadows. But in his mind, Wahid likes to think of high noon, when the sun shines white-hot, and it's easier for him to sense shapes and colors, especially blue. The American film "High Noon" happens to be one of his favorite movies; he can rattle on about its stars, its director, even its theme song. "Once someone made a video documentary about Indonesia and wanted to call it 'High Noon in Jakarta'," recalled Wahid after he took a recent predawn walk around the palace grounds, attended by nine aides, doctors and bodyguards. "High noon was supposed to be my confrontation with Wiranto," he says. He's referring to one of the most decisive moments in his 15-month-old government--when he sacked armed-forces chief General Wiranto to show his commitment to military reform. The 60-year-old president chuckles now about that high-stakes episode, but says: "For me that wasn't a movie, it was real life."
Wahid has got plenty more real-life showdowns ahead of him. In fact, Jakarta is girding for a high noon when Parliament resumes this week. Tens of thousands of pro- and anti-Wahid demonstrators are expected to converge in the streets, drawn to the flame of financial scandal. Wahid's former masseur has been accused of stealing $4 million from a government food agency, after telling officials at the agency that the president had requested the money for "humanitarian purposes." Wahid was cleared by a preliminary inquiry, and is expected to ignore an imminent call to appear in Parliament for questioning. The scandal, which broke last summer and was dubbed Buloggate (after the name of the food agency), has prompted calls for Wahid's resignation. (The masseur has admitted taking money but reportedly denied any involvement by Wahid.) Indonesian ministers have briefed jittery foreign diplomats on security precautions. Some 40,000 Army and police personnel have been mobilized to guard against violence. One embassy has warned that the Chinese New Year, beginning Jan. 23, could spark a reprise of the Bloody Christmas bombings that killed 18 people. Analysts say a sense of psychological crisis has gripped the capital. "Jakarta is already in gridlock," said one Western business consultant last week. "This is classical psychological warfare."
It is not easy to figure out who is fighting whom. In recent months Indonesia has been rocked by all manner of violence and unrest--separatist fighting in the western province of Aceh, Muslim-Christian battles in the Moluccan islands and a spate of mysterious bombings on Java. Wahid believes political enemies--associates of former dictator Suharto--have been trying to destabilize his government since his election in October 1999. He asserts they are the masterminds behind the vicious blasts that exploded at numerous Christian churches the night before Christmas. He could be right. Preliminary police reports have mentioned the names of retired and current military officers, including former Army chief of staff R. Hartono, as possible links in the bombing probe. Several are said to be expert at dirty tricks. However no military men are official suspects.
Critics call Wahid Indonesia's accidental president. He is a well-respected Muslim teacher, or kyai. He's also a man with a reputation for tolerance and candor. But his management style often gets him into trouble. Last year he fired the squeaky-clean minister of Investment and State Enterprises, Laksamana Sukardi, arguably the strongest man in a weak cabinet. In a closed-door meeting with legislators, Wahid accused Laksamana of corruption--but offered no evidence. (Laksamana has denied it.) Few Indonesians took seriously Wahid's seemingly quixotic bid for the top job in October 1999. The front runner was Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the late Indonesian president Sukarno. But the country's Islamic parties were opposed to the idea of a woman president. Wahid, the head of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a vast Muslim social-and-educational organization, became the alternative choice--and his Muslim credentials secured his victory. Wahid then asked Megawati to be vice president.
That was a prudent decision by a decidedly unconventional leader. Before the election, Wahid told supporters that he'd dreamed of becoming president. Wahid's political win only enhanced his reputation for having mystical powers. The president maintains that dreams can be useful, and on occasion he has allowed aides to rearrange his office furniture according to the principles of feng shui--but only, he says, because they (not he) believe in that stuff. "I follow dreams only if they're in line with my agenda," he insists. "Though I hear even Nancy Reagan supposedly believed in astrology."
Intervention from the heavens would not hurt. Wahid's fresh-start government has been a disappointment. In the past year the Jakarta composite stock index lost more than half its value. The rupiah has tumbled about 26 percent. Foreign investors remain spooked by nonstop political crises. James Castle, head of the Indonesian-American Chamber of Commerce, called the investment climate "frigid to say the least." Despite some export growth, Wahid's government has failed to reform the banks or to privatize state assets. Last month the IMF withheld a $400 million credit disbursement to Jakarta because it had failed to implement a number of promised economic reforms. Corruption and nepotism remain rampant. One Western diplomat despaired that economically, "the country is rotten to the core."
Nor has Wahid succeeded in calming the turmoil roiling Indonesia's outlying regions. A technical ceasefire in Aceh was extended until Feb. 15--but it was a mockery to begin with. Eight people have been killed in clashes between the military and separatists of the Free Aceh Movement since the truce was renewed last Wednesday. Each side has killed, abducted and tortured those perceived to be collaborators for the other.
Wahid's biggest problem is inexperience. He has no substantive background in government or politics--and neither do many others in his administration. "We're all virgins," says a senior official at the presidential palace. "Everyone's doing this for the first time. [Change] is slow." That's not much consolation to Indonesians who are weary of corruption, and angry that Suharto and his cohorts have not been brought to justice. Even aides worry that if Wahid fails to turn things around, "the people's belief in democracy could be destroyed," as one put it. "There's a risk to democracy itself."
As the problems outside the palace proliferate, Wahid has developed a bunker mentality. The president boasts that he talks with many people in order to "forge national consensus." Yet aides say his inner circle is tiny, and now consists of only three people--his daughter, Yenni; his brother, Umar Wahid, who is also a medical doctor, and his nephew Syafullah Jusuf, who heads NU Banser, the youth wing of the Muslim organization which Wahid led. After the Christmas Eve bombings, the palace was eerily quiet. Wahid was briefed by security officials, "but there was no crisis meeting, no gathering of ministers," recalled one official. "The palace doesn't even have a proper situation room to begin with." NEWSWEEK has learned that, a week before Christmas, an intelligence report warned of possible violence on Java over the holidays. The report was handed to a close presidential aide--who forgot to read the report to Wahid.
The only people who seem to be organized are Wahid's elusive enemies. The "Bloody Christmas" bombs were the work of pros. "They were so efficient," says Wahid. "In Bandung, explosives were handed to someone and he was given money without knowing who was behind it." Two dozen bombs exploded, and another 21 were defused by police. Most of the bombs detonated precisely between 8:30 and 9 on the night before Christmas, when many Christians were attending worship services. Despite the religious symbolism, preliminary signs point to current and former military figures--not Islamic terrorists--as the masterminds. According to prominent human-rights activist Munir, who belongs to an organization that is conducting its own inquiry, police apprehended--but then released--a military-intelligence officer who the group asserts was "involved" in bombing the Jakarta Cathedral. Munir asserts that the cathedral was part of the officer's intelligence "beat." Munir believes that the bombing participants are a grab bag of murky characters ranging from "criminal groups in the Moluccas, to militia gangs formerly in East Timor, to a small group of Islamic fundamentalists."
There is an Afghan connection to the crimes. One of three suspects detained in Bandung was Dedi Mulyadi, 31, who was injured when a bomb exploded as he and a comrade named Yoyo were carrying it on a motorbike. According to investigators, Mulyadi told them that he and Yoyo (who died in the blast) had learned to use weapons and make bombs at a Mujahedin camp in the Afghan city of Jalalabad, and that they had fought as Islamic volunteers in Afghanistan between 1990 and 1992. Still, police spokesman Brig. Gen. Saleh Saaf said the pair were "merely used by a higher-up group for their bomb-making skills." Each was paid about $30 by two middlemen acting on orders from others, said Saaf. One of the middlemen, Haji Aceng, owned a Bandung workshop that was used as a bomb factory. He's a fugitive and a suspect in the case. "They hired Muslim extremists," said Wahid. "If we return to normality, those crazy extremists will be out of a job."
So will Wahid, if he doesn't fix Indonesia's leaky judicial system. "The most important democratic institution is a justice system that's seen to work," says a Western diplomat. "This one isn't working." That's for sure. Investigators have yet to solve a string of other high-profile bombings that took place before the Christmas Eve bloodshed--one near the attorney general's residence, another beneath the Jakarta stock exchange, still another that badly injured the Philippine ambassador to Jakarta. The law-enforcement and legal bureaucracies include holdovers who may be more loyal to Suharto than to Wahid. One reason the president has continually put off naming a new Supreme Court chief justice is reportedly because he doesn't want one tainted by such political leanings.
Wahid needs clean judges, or he'll never fulfill his pledge to bring numerous Suharto cronies to heel. Wahid says that 64 businessmen, former military officers, ex-ministers, Parliament members and "even a lawyer" will soon face court action for economic crimes. Attorney General Marzuki Darusman confirmed his office is "trying to make some headway" in recovering Suharto-era assets, though "most of these assets are believed to be outside the country. We're still in the early stages." Wahid told NEWSWEEK he had already signed documents stripping some Parliament members of their immunity from prosecution. The attorney general confirmed the presidential waivers but said they covered only "about two or three so far."
Wahid dismisses calls for his resignation as "a political ploy" from people who have "miscalculated." Many Jakarta analysts say that, after suffering three strokes (the last in early 2000) Wahid's health is fragile, and he often seems erratic. The stroke he suffered last year was initially reported as the flu. But insiders say the president might have died if not for modern medical equipment kept on hand at the palace. Wahid takes various medications ranging from blood-thinners to drugs for diabetes to traditional Javanese herbal tonics. He has been known to neglect his medicine, and to defy doctors' orders by snacking on deep-fried food.
Still, he scoffs at any suggestion that the job is too demanding for him. "People say I look younger than I should," he boasts. "I credit that to Chinese acupuncture." Last year he began receiving acupuncture treatments at the recommendation of his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin. The Chinese leader sent a team of mainland doctors to Jakarta to minister to Wahid, who continued to confer with aides (and occasionally exclaimed "ouch") as the specialists inserted needles into points on his head and extremities. Despite his infirmities, each morning Wahid wakes before 4:30 to walk and stretch in the cool dark air, surrounded by the squawking and crowing of caged tropical birds and roosters on the palace grounds. If you're a pessimist, the pre-dawn scene might be construed as a chorus of ever-louder wake-up calls. If you're an optimist--and Wahid is an incurable one--it seems like the darkest hour just before dawn.