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Trying to keep Indonesia together

Looking for order within the challenges now facing the world's fourth-most populous nation, President B.J. Habibie uses his scientific training to explain and reassure.

The former aeronautical engineer defended his course of action for the impoverished province of East Timor at a forum of newspaper editors a week ago, calling the process "controlled relaxation."

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As Jakarta struggles with separatist groups in some of its provinces, fears of Indonesia's violent breakup have followed Mr. Habibie's surprise decision last month to let the province of East Timor leave the republic. Accompanying the country's economic troubles, religious tensions between Muslims and Christians have continued in far-flung parts of the country, even as political protests have slowed in recent months. Ambon in the Molucca Islands has experienced the worst violence since January, with at many as 160 deaths from fighting.

Habibie says 26 of Indonesia's provinces already suffered when they were molded as one nation in 1945 in revolts for independence from the Dutch. "Because of that, there is no way to think of separating. But the 27th province [East Timor] is different."

Foreign affairs adviser Dewi Fortuna Anwar fends off criticism that Jakarta's either/or offer of autonomy or independence for the half-island is not viable. "When will they ever be ready?" Ms. Anwar asks. "If the various provinces had waited to be ready and not asked to come together to throw out the Dutch, there would be no Indonesian nation today." Indonesia is duty-bound not to leave East Timor in bloodshed, she pledged, and will work toward disarming various groups.

Habibie explains that letting East Timor go, along with political and economic restructuring beginning with the June 7 national parliamentary election, are part of the democratic process he is shepherding.

More than 140 political parties have registered in a new flowering of political freedom. With the press unmuzzled, observers fear the elections may become unwieldy and violent. But "a fair, clean, transparent election must be guaranteed by fair, clean, transparent information," Habibie says.

Ms. Anwar cautions that Indonesia's first stab at democracy won't be smooth sailing. "Democracy will take a long time," she says.

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