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Indonesia's Drama

An all-too-familiar drama is unfolding in Indonesia. Its 210 million people are experiencing, simultaneously, economic chaos and political transformation. The scenes emanating from the archipelago nation, though uniquely Indonesian in detail, echo the turmoil of Russia and the former Yugoslavia.

Those scenes took on a particularly ominous hue this week. Muslim youths in Jakarta rampaged against Roman Catholic migrant workers, burning churches and viciously attacking individuals. The riots were ignited by rumors that mosques had been assaulted by Christians.

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Rumors and conspiracy theories are fueled by plummeting living standards caused by Asia's economic woes. Indonesia's small but economically powerful Chinese community has taken the brunt of resentment. But other minorities, including Christians, are also threatened.

President B.J. Habibie has the difficult task of quelling violence while trying to steer the country toward economic and political reform. He has to exert force, but must be careful. Violence by riot-control units can turn people against the government, deepening anarchy - as happened earlier this month when 16 student protesters were killed by troops.

It's not a promising setting for democratic processes. Political competition too easily invites more violence. Next year's elections have been set back from May to June. The current outlook for an orderly vote is dim.

Mr. Habibie, to his credit, has allowed new parties to form. Moderate political figures have an opportunity to shape a coalition that could raise hopes for a transition to popular rule.

Three decades of autocracy under former strongman Suharto left little institutional basis for such hopes. Pillars of democracy, here as elsewhere in the world, must be erected pretty much from scratch. That's not quick work. The Army, for instance, must be weaned from the political role guaranteed it by Suharto. But, as an institution, it should be made a partner in political change, not an adversary.

Political evolution is inevitably harnessed to economic recovery. The latter is anchored by a $43 billion International Monetary Fund bailout. The Indonesian currency has of late been strengthening, and the country's stock market is rising. But long-term improvement hinges on political stability. Investors won't venture into chaos. One key class of investors, Chinese entrepreneurs, are made wary by government plans to create business ownership among indigenous Indonesians, as opposed to Chinese.

Indonesia's drama is extraordinarily complex, like the country itself. But it is not predestined to slide toward extended tragedy. President Habibie must lead his country out of a pattern of chronic disorder, crime, and, eventually, a yearning for the old autocracy. Leadership that focuses on the country's long-term progress, along with international teamwork and encouragement, will bring a better day.

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