AWAJI ISLAND, Hyogo Pref. — In the turmoil following the resignation of Indonesian President Suharto in May 1998, the reins of power passed to Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, then 62 years old.

Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie

Habibie led the country for a single but turbulent year that saw massacres in East Timor, the rise of separatist movements in Irian Jaya and Aceh, and mass protests on the streets of Jakarta.

His surprise announcement in February 1999 that he would allow a referendum on independence for East Timor led to the eventual abatement of that prolonged conflict, and during his brief tenure, he managed to put the country on the road to what he terms “accelerated evolution.”

“I was able to do this because I had inherited a lot of power from my predecessor,” said Habibie, while attending the 19th Plenary Session of the InterAction Council on Awaji Island.

“Whereas many leaders pass only four laws a year, I enacted 1.3 laws a day,” he said. “It was my intention to give power back to the people. So, even though according to the constitution, I could have stayed in office until 2003, I decided to step down.”

Now enjoying the role of elder statesman, Habibie said he advocates the direct popular election of not only the nation’s president but regional leaders as well, saying this is the only way out of Indonesia’s current political crisis.

Although in favor of greater autonomy for regions like Irian Jaya, Habibie said he would stop short of granting total independence. “The problems of Irian Jaya and Aceh can only be solved within the autonomy of the provinces,” he said. “However, the laws that are passed locally must be compatible with the laws of the whole country”

Throughout his many years in the Cabinet under Suharto, Habibie developed a close working relationship with his Japanese counterparts. In his capacity as chairman of the Japan-Indonesia Science and Technology Forum from 1984-1998, he visited Japan on numerous occasions to consult with government officials and technology experts.

“Japan, Australia and Europe have spent a lot of effort and been very patient in assisting Indonesia in the last 35 years,” he remarked.

“But especially Japan has played a very important role and has always taken the initiative. I felt this during my presidency. They were the first to come without being asked, and without their help, we wouldn’t have achieved what we have.”

Habibie, who expressed optimism that Japan will be able to restructure its economy, said he sees in Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s statements the potential for necessary reform.

He added that he would support Japan taking a more assertive international role through such means as revising its Constitution to allow it to exercise its right of collective defense, as well as securing a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

“Japan today is a different society than some 50 years ago. I see no difference between Japan and North America or Europe. You cannot be imprisoned by the past. The potential of Japan, as well as Germany, and their contributions to peace and human security allows me to accept these ideas.”

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