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CHIANG MAI, Thailand– With President Megawati Sukarnoputri at the helm, the amount of sensational news coming out of Indonesia has somewhat subsided. This is a welcome development as too much media interest usually points to trouble.

How can we summarize prevailing outside perceptions of the archipelago today? No one would dispute the fact that Megawati has succeeded in restoring a degree of calm after the historic upheaval at the end of the Suharto era and the subsequent chaotic situation under President Abdurrahman Wahid, a colorful and well-meaning but quite erratic public figure.

The new president made an initial impact not so much through personal charisma but through her pedigree as the daughter of Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno. But very quickly she managed to project an image of a down-to-earth leader, blessed with common sense as well as with a sense of balance. In addition, she seems to attract generally able collaborators, and while she perhaps proceeds slowly in her actions, she is steady and consistent.

When viewing a country as large and complex as Indonesia, especially at its present critical juncture, it is not easy to see things through a black-and-white prism. It would be therefore be erroneous to attribute to Megawati only successes or failures. The final balance sheet contains both, but some positive steps have to be acknowledged:

The economy appears to slowly improving, although basic weaknesses remain. The rupiah has gained strength, consumption is increasing and relations with the International Monetary Fund have been repaired. Naturally, political uncertainties and a questionable legal system present an obstacle to substantial foreign investment, but in general terms the whole picture looks brighter than before.

On the terrorism front, several steps have been taken with particular progress in the troubled Moluccas, although perhaps not to the extent desirable either in Washington or in Southeast Asian capitals. In fact, many analysts conclude that in this area, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has surpassed Jakarta in moves to align his country with the international antiterror coalition.

With regard to East Timor, Megawati has shown personal courage and foresight in insisting on attending the inaugural celebrations in Dili. This belies the general impression that the Indonesian leader is indecisive, as it is well known that many important Indonesian circles resisted the idea of her making the trip. Through her bold move, she succeeded in symbolically closing a very sad historical chapter and at the same time pointing to a positive future relationship between a Goliath and a David forced to coexist on the same archipelago.

But the ultimate test for Megawati will be the perennial problem of harmony between the macrocosm and the microcosm of Indonesia — between densely populated Java and the outer islands. Here some steps have been taken in particular to diffuse the explosive situation in rebellious Aceh province. This is of immense importance as Aceh has been the cradle of Islam with a long history of resistance against the Portuguese, the Dutch and Jakarta. The overall issue of outer vs. inner provinces has deep roots in the past with tensions between the seafaring, largely Muslim states and the inward looking inland state of Java, as academic J.R.E. Waddell pointed out 30 years ago.

The world at large, especially the Western world, has many expectations of the new Indonesian leader in terms of creating a true, transparent democracy through the implementation of a set of necessary reforms. But it would be rather unrealistic to expect a faithful replica of Westminster patterns: The process is not as easy as it looks.

The average Indonesian, writes Waddell, finds it difficult to replace his primordial loyalties with loyalty to the state or to add loyalty to the state to his other loyalties to kin, region and religion. The competitive Western political model failed in Indonesia precisely because it emphasized and indeed institutionalized the very divisions that are the bane of Indonesian political life.

How much do these remarks apply to the present? At this time they could be dismissed by an international community that is rather impatient with “wayang shadow play” ambiguities and procrastinations. But Megawati does seem inclined to adhere to ideals of consensus that are difficult for the West to fathom.

Since independence, Indonesia has struggled to modernize. This is a time to come closer to the dream, with many adjustments, perhaps even sacrifices, in a harmonious blend between time-tested values and the new, unavoidable trends of a world in motion.

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