Indonesia’s wobbly democracy is being sorely tested as the government attempts to bring former President Suharto and his children to justice. At the same time, it must cope with escalating violence both in the capital of Jakarta and in the provinces. Ominously, the two problems appear to overlap: President Abdurrahman Wahid has accused the former president’s youngest son, Mr. Hutomo “Tommy” Mandala Putra, of being behind a recent series of bombings in the capital. The young Suharto may be connected to the violence, but the charge is as yet unsubstantiated. It will be difficult, and it is likely to be unsatisfying, but Indonesia must now be scrupulous about its adherence to the rule of law.

Mr. Suharto, 79 and ailing, was being tried for allegedly embezzling $550 million from charities he controlled during his three decades in power. Most Indonesians, including Mr. Wahid, believe that sum is a tiny fraction of what the former president and his six children stole.

Last week, an independent medical panel derailed the prosecution when it concluded that Mr. Suharto had suffered extensive brain damage from a series of strokes and was unable to defend himself. The court ordered the trial suspended and all restrictions on the former president lifted. That decision sparked riots in the streets of Jakarta from activists who continue to demand an accounting from the former president.

The government has vowed to appeal that decision. It must. If the ruling is overturned, and the trial can proceed, then the government and the courts can prove that they have the commitment and authority to try and convict the former dictator and his family members. It would prove that no one is above the law. But if the incompetency ruling is upheld, proceedings must stop. It is wrong to force a trial on a man who cannot defend himself. Proceeding, and violating that basic civil right, would mean that the new regime had put political expedience and its own interests above those of a citizen. It would, in other words, be repeating the mistakes of the past.

There is a similar risk in the case against the former president’s son. No one knows who is responsible for the series of bombings in Jakarta. But there is a strong suspicion that the group behind the blasts, including one last month at the Stock Exchange that killed 15 people, consisted of supporters of Mr. Suharto. The exchange bombing occurred just before the former president’s trial resumed. And Suharto supporters admitted to bombing a human-rights organization last week.

The police, who have arrested 27 suspects, have another theory. They believe the bombings were the acts of the Free Aceh Movement, the GAM, which wants independence from Indonesian rule. Nonetheless, Mr. Wahid called for the arrest of the younger Suharto, and dismissed the chief of police when he refused to follow through. That, too, looks like a casual approach to justice.

“Tommy” has other problems, though. Indonesia’s Supreme Court last week overturned his acquittal by a lower court and sentenced him to 18 months in prison. The son, accused of a multimillion-dollar land scam, will appeal, but he may have to serve time while awaiting a decision. He is the first of the family to be convicted. This raises the hope that the Suhartos are not immune from prosecution after all.

But Indonesia’s problems extend far beyond Jakarta’s courtrooms. The marauding militias in West Timor have blackened the government’s international reputation and pose a real threat to peace in East and West Timor. Last month, two United Nations aid workers were killed by militia members who crossed over into East Timor. The killings took place as Mr. Wahid addressed the U.N. General Assembly, undercutting his authority and making him look powerless before the world. The U.N. and individual nations demanded that the Indonesian government disarm and disband the militiamen who have terrorized the people of East Timor.

Negotiations were held with the militias and they agreed to turn in their weapons to the military — which, ironically, had armed them two years ago in an effort to prevent East Timor from voting for independence. But after turning over a few token weapons, the militias balked, forcing the military to make good on its promise to collect the weapons by force.

In Aceh Province, the government is having better luck. The separatist rebels there have agreed to extend a ceasefire until Jan. 15, 2001 and to hold talks with Jakarta on resolving the 20-year dispute. This seems likely to be but a pause in the conflict, since GAM insists on nothing less than independence and Mr. Wahid is prepared only to offer a degree of autonomy.

There is little ground for compromise. The trick would be to give the people of Aceh reason to stay in Indonesia. A greater stake in their future, respect for human rights and rule by law would be powerful inducements.

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