While trying to shore up President Suharto, the Clinton Administration has also been giving support to some of the most important Indonesian opposition groups, hoping to promote a transition to a democratic society.
The money has come from the United States Agency for International Development, better known for building dams and roads than creating bridges to political opponents of authoritarian leaders.
The sum, $26 million since 1995, is relatively small among United States foreign-aid programs. But it has been important to the survival of groups that support human rights and free speech in Indonesia.
The money from A.I.D. is the largest source of support for groups like the Indonesia Legal Aid Society, headed by Adnan Buyung Nasution, a leading figure in the Indonesian democracy movement and the nation’s best-known civil rights lawyer. The group is giving free legal counsel to political figures and students arrested by the Government in the current crisis, the type of role that the society has played for years.
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The United States agency has helped Indonesian rights advocates ”monitor human-rights issues, mobilize public opinion and monitor extralegal activities, corruption and abuse of the poor” by the Suharto Government, said Sharon Cromer, deputy director of the A.I.D. mission in Indonesia.
The support has helped insure the survival of private groups that are emerging as leaders of the opposition in Indonesia, ”despite their being constrained by the authoritarian system,” Ms. Cromer said.
A.I.D. has supported 30 nongovernmental organizations in Indonesia, agency officials said. The organizations include an environmental group that is fighting a large American mining company on behalf of people who live near the company’s projects; a coalition of journalists whose work was banned by the Indonesian Government, a women’s rights group and a consumers’ rights foundation.
”A.I.D. is the largest financial supporter to and the most active donor in this controversial sector,” the agency told Congress in a recent budget request.
Peter Galbraith, a former senior counsel to A.I.D., said: ”The idea was to send a message that the United States was concerned about something other than the banks and the economic issues, that we thought about the ordinary people of Indonesia, and to prepare for a possible transition from Suharto to what we hope will be a more democratic and stable system.”
William Little, a professor of Indonesia studies at Ohio University and a former A.I.D. consultant, said the program had been a success.
”A democracy requires a civil society,” Professor Little said. ”Indonesia has been like the Soviet Union. The Government controls most civil society organizations. It creates them or determines who their leaders are. The point of the program was to try to develop these groups. The groups are now leading figures in the opposition.”
In the last five years, programs like the one in Indonesia have been created by the director of the agency, J. Brian Atwood, in more than 25 missions around the world in nations including Guatemala, Kenya, South Africa and the Philippines.
But the Indonesian program has come under fire from some supporters of the present Jakarta Government, including Freeport-McMoran Copper and Gold of New Orleans, the largest single foreign investor in Indonesia.
Freeport-McMoran argues that the United States should not support Walhi, an Indonesian environmental and human-rights group that has attacked the company’s projects as detrimental to Indonesians near Freeport mines.
”Walhi’s trying to shut us down,” said a spokesman for the company, Garland Robinette. ”That’s their avowed intention.”
Despite intense pressure from the company, the United States Ambassador in Indonesia, Stapleton Roy, stood by the program.
The idea behind such programs, according to Charles E. Costello, director of the Center for Democracy and Governance, an A.I.D. office founded in 1993, is that economic development alone cannot create a civil society.
”Democratic political systems and market economies should go together,” Mr. Costello said.
Human-rights organizations fiercely critical of the United States’ foreign policy in Indonesia say the program has been invaluable for the Indonesian groups, which are known as nongovernmental organizations, or N.G.O.’s.
The Asia director at Human Rights Watch, Sidney Jones, said the program gave the United States Embassy in Jakarta insights it might otherwise lack.
”It keeps the embassy in touch with all the N.G.O.’s,” Ms. Jones said. ”And of course that’s useful. It also gives the N.G.O.’s a kind of protection.”
Correction: May 22, 1998, Friday An article on Wednesday about United States aid to Indonesian groups opposed to President Suharto misspelled the surname of a professor of political science who commented on the aid, and misstated his affiliation. He is William Liddle, not Little, and he teaches at Ohio State University, not Ohio University.