Indonesia's newly elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid, said yesterday he would order Indonesia's air force to fly East Timorese refugees back home and would pardon the country's toppled leader, Suharto, if the former ruler is found guilty of corruption.
Wahid met for an hour with President Clinton, who pledged to support Indonesia's transition to democracy and its economic reforms. Wahid, who is mostly blind, later flew to Salt Lake City for eye surgery.
Administration officials said Clinton urged Wahid to follow through on his commitment to return refugees from East Timor, the territory where violence broke out in early September after a referendum passed in favor of independence. There are still about 180,000 East Timorese refugees in Indonesian-controlled western Timor, intimidated by militias backed by the Indonesian military, U.S. officials said.
"I assure President Clinton . . . that in East Timor we will work very hard to ensure that the refugees from our side of Timor will go freely to their places," Wahid said after the meeting.
Wahid also told reporters that his government would stick to the rule of law and determine whether Suharto is guilty. It is widely believed that in more than 30 years of rule, the former leader had plundered millions, if not billions, of dollars for himself and his family.
But in a nod to the Indonesian military that had given Suharto substantial support, Wahid said he would then pardon Suharto. "Mr. Suharto still has big followers, so we have to be careful not to, let's say, topple the cart," Wahid said.
Wahid assured Clinton, as well as officials he met separately from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, that he would clamp down on corruption. He recently released a previously secret report regarding improper ties between a commercial bank, Bank Bali, and the previous ruling party. The IMF and World Bank, which had suspended talks with Indonesia over the Bank Bali scandal and East Timor crisis, have restarted negotiations over the next installment of loans to the southeast Asian archipelago nation.
Wahid also said he would allow a referendum in Aceh, a region hit by demonstrations for independence. It remained unclear, however, whether Wahid would allow the referendum to be about independence or merely greater autonomy. He said he would negotiate to make sure that any referendum could be held peacefully and fairly, but added, "I think we can resolve that in the next few months."
Clinton, in an effort to quiet suspicions in Indonesia that the United States is seeking to dismember the country, said, "We support the territorial integrity of Indonesia."
A senior administration official who attended the meeting said Wahid also wanted to soothe any anxieties the Clinton administration might have as a result of his proposal that Asian nations form an "axis" to help one another. He has advocated closer ties with India and China.
In his meeting with Clinton, Wahid stressed that such an axis would not be anti-Western and that close ties with the United States were important to Indonesia. "He does not see it as a zero-sum game," said the Clinton administration official. "He said clearly that Indonesia will rely heavily on the West, especially for foreign investment."