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Indonesian togetherness at stake

Thousands of islands, 210 million people, 300 ethnic groups: Can they

Most Sundays, Madsrochi and his wife, Nurinah, pile onto his motorbike with their two boys, some fruit and water, and leave the dusty heat of Jakarta for Taman Mini.

A creation of former President Suharto, the theme park reproduces Indonesia, almost three-quarters of a million square miles of it, over 300 acres at the edge of the capital city. Miniaturized cultural monuments and displays tout the 27 provinces and some of the country's 300 ethnic and religious groups.

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Mr. Madsrochi's family usually spreads a picnic blanket by a man-made lake with islands that feature a replica of the archipelago nation. "This is Indonesia," the salesman says, waving a hand around. "Here, it comes together, all in one place."

Indonesia might coalesce at Taman Mini, but in the real world the country's unity is under strain. Secession movements are gaining steam, inspired by a referendum in East Timor this August on whether to become independent or autonomous within Indonesia. Clashes between Muslim political parties underscore the potential for ethnic and religious violence as next month's national election draws near.

Mr. Suharto used his strong-arm authority and a secular ideology to keep divisions in check over his 32-year tenure, and some observers say Indonesia will unravel without his iron rule. But most analysts and many ordinary Indonesians disagree. They argue that culture, common interests, and the bonds of shared history are likely to keep this nation of 210 million largely in one piece.

"If we were going to break up, we would have done so before," says Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights and deputy secretary of the ruling Golkar Party. "We worked very hard to become a country, and we've gone through more difficult times."

INDONESIA is an unlikely nation. Indeed, one Western diplomat who declined to be named describes it as "an artificial country held together by artificial means," a reference to Suharto's strong-arm rule.

Initially patched together by Dutch colonialists, Indonesia gained independence only 50 years ago. After a brief but heady period of parliamentary democracy, Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, established the autocratic rule that Suharto continued until he stepped down last May.

Today, Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country spread over about 13,000 islands and dominated politically by the central island of Java. Because the archipelago lies across some of the world's most strategic shipping lanes, Indonesian stability is important to its neighbors. "It's something we're worried about," admits an Asian diplomat who requested anonymity.

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A stroll through Taman Mini theme park shows just how many elements Indonesia must unite to stay together. Small Hindu and Buddhist temples sit side by side. One display features the culture of Irian Jaya, a secessionist province. In the distance, the half-finished shell of a gigantic mosque rises above the park, a reminder that Indonesia is also the world's largest Muslim country.

Suharto, who uses only one name like many Indonesians, wove the country's diverse strands together with Pancasila, the state philosophy he inherited from Sukarno. The five Pancasila principles - a belief in one god, humanism, nationalism, popular sovereignty, and social justice - were meant to encourage pluralism and tolerance. Suharto used the philosophy to discredit opponents. But belief in its basics still runs strong.

"Pancasila is still important," says Madsrochi, as he peels an orange. "It makes us feel united, and unity is what people want from a very low level."

Like many Indonesians, he attributes ethnic and religious violence to provocateurs who want to make trouble before the election. Others suggest the clashes are really driven by economic or other frustrations, and argue that respect for pluralism endures.

"Whenever there's an outburst of religious or ethnic violence we immediately see a counterreaction, religious leaders coming together to say we can't do this," says Hadi Soesastro, executive director of Jakarta's Center of Strategic and International Studies.

The new religion-based political parties take pains to stress openness to pluralism as well. "We won't succeed unless we convince Indonesians we're open," says Nur Mahmudi Ismail, president of the Justice Party. Mr. Ismail points out the importance of the 1945 Constitution as a symbol of unity. Others mention the common language, Bahasa Indonesia, chosen by freedom fighters who fought for independence from the Dutch, and a school system that fostered nationalism under Suharto.

Perhaps most important, says former government minister Emil Salim, the archipelago's islands have a shared history. "We are various ethnic groups, but were colonized by the same power, we suffered the same occupation under the Japanese [during World War II], and we struggled for independence together," he says. "Aceh struggled, just like Java."

Like most observers, he expects East Timor to eventually gain independence. But he argues that provinces like Aceh and Irian Jaya want justice, not separation. Their natural resources are exploited by the central government, which gives them little of the wealth. "On the surface it looks like another Yugoslavia," he says, "but the integrating factors are still strong, people simply have a desire to stay together."

The central government isn't leaving anything to chance. Jakarta recently passed autonomy laws that shift economic and political power to the provinces, which analysts say is an attempt rob independence movements of momentum.

The real test of Indonesian unity begins after the June election. The first few governments are likely to be coalitions, and if they prove to be ineffectual, as in the 1950s period of parliamentary democracy, it could spell trouble. "They'll muddle through, but if they can't band together it will result in a failing state," says another Western diplomat. "If that goes on for five years, there will be a greater risk of balkanization."

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