President Abdurrahman Wahid, whose country is beset by violent ethnic clashes, another secessionist war and a restive military, dismissed rumors of a coup d'etat today but vowed to take stern measures against anyone who dares try to seize power.
Wahid said at a news conference that he appreciates strong statements of support from the United States and other countries in the face of the mounting coup talk. But the fact that a president elected less than three months ago had to address worries about dissent in the military seemed a telling sign of how quickly Wahid's governing coalition has begun to fray and how anti-reform forces remain a threat to Indonesia's nascent democracy.
"I don't think there will be a coup," said Wahid, who leaves next week for a two-week, 12-country tour. "We will take harsh action against any attempt, if there is one."
Continued violence around the vast Indonesian archipelago--and the government's seeming inability to arrest it--has left the still popular president suddenly subject to surprisingly harsh criticism. Clashes between Christians and Muslims in Ambon, in the Spice Islands, has claimed hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. Muslims demonstrating here in the capital have demanded a holy war in defense of Muslims in the islands, and the violence has now spilled over to the resort island of Lombok, near Bali, where angry Muslims reportedly burned several churches.
The violence has brought sharp criticism from Muslim forces in the constituent assembly that coalesced in October to choose Wahid president over Megawati Sukarnoputri, who was considered too secular. The assembly chairman, Amien Rais, attended one of the largest demonstrations and seemed to endorse the call for more concerted government action to aid Ambon's Muslims. It was Rais who nominated Wahid for the presidency and pushed his candidacy.
In addition to pressure from the Muslim political bloc, Wahid has also been facing restlessness from the other pillar of his government, the armed forces, whose top leaders are under investigation for human rights abuses and atrocities following the violence and destruction in East Timor as the territory moved toward independence last September.
An Indonesian human rights commission is expected to accuse Gen. Wiranto, the former armed forces commander, and several other generals of orchestrating the East Timor violence or of allowing it to occur. Wiranto, who is Wahid's coordinating minister for political affairs, has already hired a prominent Jakarta legal team to plan his defense.
A separate U.N. commission investigating the East Timor violence is also closing in on Wiranto and other top officers. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is reviewing that commission's report and will soon make recommendations for further action.
Wahid and Wiranto have been in a high-stakes standoff over power and influence in the new government. Wahid is known to want to remove Wiranto, but appears to be waiting until the human rights commission and the U.N. body make their reports. "As soon as those reports are in, he'll kick him out," said one Indonesian analyst.
Wahid has moved slowly but deliberately to try to consolidate his hold over the armed forces, replacing the armed forces spokesman, Maj. Gen. Sudrajat, as well as the armed forces intelligence chief. Sudrajat had angered the president with remarks contradicting the president on the need for martial law to quell a separatist uprising in Aceh province and by suggesting the president had no right to interfere in military matters. But Wahid so far has been unable to force Wiranto--along with two other army generals in the cabinet--to retire from active duty.
The military's machinations and other challenges to Wahid have prompted strong statements of support from the Clinton administration for him and for Indonesia's democratic efforts. On Friday, U.N. Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, in a telephone interview with journalists in Jakarta, warned that the military risks "massive damage to Indonesia" if it attempts a coup. U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Gelbard also conveyed to Wahid a message of support from President Clinton.
CAPTION: President Abdurrahman Wahid has sought to blunt the military's political power.