With President Reagan, Southeast Asian foreign ministers, senior officials and a horde of reporters in attendance, a series of meetings this week amid the natural charm of the Indonesian island of Bali offered President Suharto a rare international showcase.
Instead, the idyllic resort island has become an unlikely setting for a public relations disaster.
The meetings presented an opportunity for Suharto to play a more prominent role in world affairs and to underscore the importance of this huge nation of 163 million people. Indeed, the Reagan visit here before the Tokyo economic summit was seen by Jakarta as U.S. recognition of that importance and an overdue paying of homage to the enigmatic former Army general who has ruled the diverse Indonesian nation for 20 years.
But the government's mishandling of the foreign press has shifted the focus of the Reagan visit from Indonesia's considerable achievements in development to its sensitivities about dissent, press censorship, human rights issues, the role of the military in society and factionalism within the Suharto administration.
The expulsions yesterday of three journalists -- two Australians accompanying Reagan and a Bangkok-based correspondent of The New York Times -- also highlighted the increasingly regal governing style of Suharto and the overriding importance he attaches to being seen as master in his own house, whatever the cost to Indonesia's image in the West and the seeming dictates of common sense.
For Indonesia, which went to the trouble and expense of hiring the U.S. public relations firm Hill & Knowlton Inc. to turn out handsome press kits for the approximately 500 visiting journalists here, it was a classic case of shooting oneself in the foot.
The trouble started with a package of articles published April 10 by Australia's Sydney Morning Herald on the vast wealth allegedly amassed by Suharto, his family and friends through the use of their offices and connections. According to diplomatic sources in Jakarta, it was Suharto's furious reaction to the articles that triggered a crisis in Australian-Indonesian relations, set the tone for reprisals against Australia and called international attention to a highly sensitive issue.
Among the reprisals were the expulsion of two Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalists who flew in with the White House press corps. The separate expulsion of New York Times correspondent Barbara Crossette following a refusal to grant her a journalist's visa was never officially explained, but was believed to have stemmed from a recent Sunday magazine article by Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal that included Suharto among Asian tyrants.
Crossette's case underscored the dominant role of the military in running the country and the internal disputes this situation sometimes engenders. Asked about the case in a news conference today, Foreign Minister Mochtar Kusumaatmadja admitted he had intervened on Crossette's behalf, but had failed to get approval for her to cover the Reagan visit. Mochtar also is known to have been dismayed by the handling of the Sydney Morning Herald case, which generated a torrent of adverse publicity and cast a pall over the Bali meetings.
He attributed the decision to bar Crossette variously to immigration authorities and the Information Ministry in what he said became "an internal matter in the Indonesian government." But knowledgeable Indonesian sources said the objection came from the military and the state security organization, which are both headed by Gen. L.B. (Benny) Murdani, a close aide and staunchly loyal supporter of Suharto.
Wednesday's issue of the International Herald Tribune, a Paris-based newspaper published by The New York Times and The Washington Post, was also banned, its Indonesian distributor was quoted as saying in a dispatch from Jakarta by Agence France-Presse. A spokesman for the distributor, PT Indoprom, said no reason was given for the ban.
[The edition carried three front-page articles on Indonesia, including one by The Washington Post that said criticism appears to be mounting against the business dealings of relatives and associates of Suharto.]
A 64-year-old former soldier proud of his peasant origins, Suharto long has ruled Indonesia in the style of Javanese kings, wielding immense power with seeming detachment and rarely giving direct orders, Indonesian observers said. Suharto has long stressed consensus and harmony in his administrative system, but in recent years his style has grown noticeably more self-confident, even imperious, the observers said. Thus the Australian articles not only "insulted the head of state," as authorities charged, but were practically treated as lese majesty.
Largely as a result of the expulsions, Mochtar was peppered with questions at his news conference about press freedom and human rights issues. Mochtar reputedly is one of the leading advocates of a more open society here. But the pro-American, U.S.-educated Mochtar was cast in the news conference as a defender of censorship, a role that obviously did not suit him well.
"Did I say there was freedom of the press?" in Indonesia, he asked at one point. "I also said you can't force us to like what you write."
Questioned about the government's rationale for blacking out articles deemed offensive in foreign publications sold here, Mochtar responded, "It's puzzling, isn't it?"
Attention also was called to the latest State Department report on human rights in Indonesia.
"Although there were improvements in the human rights situation in 1985, problems nevertheless remain," it said. "These include unexplained deaths and disappearances, reports of torture and cruel treatment of prisoners, and restrictions on freedom of speech and press, freedom of movement and activities of political parties and labor organizations.