Attorney General Marzuki Darusman says he favors establishing a South African-style truth commission that would allow Indonesia to come to terms with the abuses of its authoritarian past while freeing the new government to turn its attention to pressing economic concerns.

Marzuki, a longtime human rights campaigner, said the six-week-old government of President Abdurrahman Wahid faces intense public pressure to bring to account those responsible for the abuses that characterized the 32-year rule of former dictator Suharto. But he said the government also risks being hamstrung in pursuing these cases of injustice when more attention should be directed toward reviving Indonesia's shattered economy and rebuilding its damaged institutions.

A "truth and reconciliation commission," Marzuki said in a recent interview, "will take care of these issues in batches. . . . Then we can get on with the other business of dealing with the economy." Right now, he said, the list of investigations into past abuses "is clogging up the political process."

"Let's get on with other business," Marzuki said.

Marzuki, appearing tired at the end of a long day and week, conceded that many of the sensitive decisions now waiting on his desk--which cases to pursue, which to prosecute--have to be made in a highly charged atmosphere, with the public demanding justice after decades of repression.

"It's not as if you have the room, or space, to make your own choices," he said. "It's always related to what the public wants to see happen. So you always have to engage in politics."

Marzuki said the truth commission idea, first raised by Wahid before he became president, was now gaining in support. But he complained that the proposal to set up the commission had bogged down in debate in the cabinet. "Sometimes we go for it in a too balanced way," he said. "Let's study it again, let's look at it again. . . . It keeps on being postponed."

Under a truth commission, like the one set up in South Africa after the transition to democratic rule, perpetrators of human rights abuses, usually from the government and security services, are offered immunity from prosecution if they testify fully and truthfully to all crimes they committed. Theoretically, allowing the truth to emerge lays the groundwork for national healing, which is deemed more important than jailing people.

Indonesia is grappling with a raft of unresolved issues from the recent and distant past: the decade-long "military operations zone" against separatists in Aceh province that left hundreds, if not thousands, dead; the kidnappings and disappearances of dozens of political activists; and the May 1998 riots in Jakarta and the rapes of Chinese women that human rights reports said were instigated by elements in the military.

Two major issues would have to fall outside the purview of any future truth commission, Marzuki said: the investigation into Suharto's alleged ill-gotten fortune, and the role of Indonesia's armed forces in the violence in East Timor in the days after the territory's vote for independence.

In his first days as attorney general, Marzuki reopened the probe into Suharto's wealth. In the interview, he said the decision was not prompted by new evidence. Rather, he said, "it's a new view of the issue based on existing evidence that was not taken into account when the case was stopped."

Marzuki said that bringing Suharto to justice was important to show foreign investors that the new government is serious about upholding the rule of law. "If we're not seen as serious in enforcing the law, then it will affect the economy as a whole. . . . It's both a legal issue and an economic issue," he said. "Settling these issues goes a long way in restoring the public's confidence in the legal system."

Wahid has said repeatedly he favors a pardon for Suharto, who recently suffered a stroke, after the legal process, including a trial, is completed.

The investigation into the military's role in East Timor is moving ahead, pursued by an Indonesian investigating panel and a separate U.N. commission. Both have found evidence of Indonesian military involvement in atrocities in East Timor.

The East Timor probe could ultimately end up targeting Gen. Wiranto, the cabinet coordinating minister for political and security affairs, who was armed forces chief at the time of the Timor violence.

Marzuki, who as attorney general might be in the position to bring charges against Wiranto, is now in a delicate position, figuratively and literally; in cabinet meetings, Marzuki sits directly opposite Wiranto. "It could be tricky," Marzuki said.

"At this stage, we are already aware of that, that it might eventually lead that way" to a prosecution, Marzuki said.

CAPTION: Attorney General Marzuki Darusman is probing military's role in East Timor and has reopened case of ex-president Suharto.