For decades, Indonesia has been wracked by corruption at the highest levels of government, as well as by political repression. Although nominal elections take place, the country is far from democratic. Suharto, members of his extended family and political cronies control many of the country's businesses as well as the government. Freedom of the press is severely restricted, the detention of political dissidents is commonplace, and torture and extrajudicial killings still occur.
Just last week, two students were reported killed and several others injured when Indonesian troops fired into a crowd protesting in East Timor, the former Portuguese colony Indonesia invaded in 1975 and still controls. Many thousands have died under the brutal police state imposed by Indonesia in East Timor, and perhaps as many as a third of the entire population of the island has suffered casualties. One of the bloodiest incidents took place on Nov. 12, 1991, when Indonesian troops killed hundreds of civilians in the city of Dili.
In 1996, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two East Timorese, the Roman Catholic archbishop of East Timor and human-rights activist Jose Ramos-Horta.
Last month, Ramos-Horta visited with me in Washington. Soft-spoken but passionate about his people's freedom, he voiced his frustration that the United States hasn't done more to push the Suharto government to withdraw its troops from East Timor and to support a referendum on self-determination for the East Timorese. He seemed especially chagrined that Americans would be footing much of the bill for the recent financial bailout agreed to by the Clinton administration. While he noted that the administration has been supportive of the Timorese in human-rights forums, he complained that the rhetoric hasn't necessarily translated into policy changes.
Next week, leaders from the Pacific Rim, including both President Clinton and Suharto, will meet in Vancouver, Canada, for a meeting on Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Foremost on everyone's mind will be the economic crisis in Asia, with much of the attention focused on Japan. Clinton, nonetheless, could use this opportunity to apply some pressure on Suharto to clean up his act, especially on East Timor.
But if history is any guide, Clinton won't make any fuss. In 1994, when Indonesia was host to a previous APEC meeting, the President seemed more interested in renewing ties to his own Indonesian buddies in the Riady family, members of which have been implicated in the recent Democratic National Committee fund-raising scandal, than in pressing human-rights concerns or urging the Suharto government to rid itself of its own corruption. Then again, I suppose it would be awkward for Clinton to give lectures to anyone on ethics in government.
Americans should care, however, that their hard-earned dollars go to support corrupt regimes like Suharto's. It is no wonder that so many Americans dislike and distrust foreign aid when our own leaders squander it so badly.
Linda Chavez is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, D.C.