HANKS TO AYATOLLAH KHOMEINI, I found myself clawing through the muddy Indonesian jungle to catch a glimpse of feeding orangutans. This was a brief diversion, a two-hour detour from the city of Medan, in northern Sumatra. Our group was in the country to meet with Indonesian human-rights advocates. Khomeini's role in all of this? The bitter lesson absorbed by Americans that it is foolish to neglect the opposition in countries governed by friendly dictators.

Indonesia may be the most important of such countries. It has been ruled by General Suharto for 30 years, since he led the suppression of a communist power-grab. With over 200 million people, it is the fourth most populous country in the world, and the largest Islamic one. Its economy has been growing at an annual rate upward of 6 percent for the last decade, giving it a per-capita income of about $ 3,000. Thus, it is following in the path of Asian prosperity blazed by the "little tigers" -- but with a population mass that could give it major weight in global economics and politics.

Although Indonesia scored 13 out of a worst-possible 14 in Freedom House's survey of worldwide freedom last year, it vividly illustrates the distinction publicized by Jeane Kirkpatrick (and for which she was lacerated): that between authoritarian and totalitarian states. There is no doubt that in Indonesia power flows from the top down. But there is also a good deal of " social space." Indeed, the regime seems very much on the defensive under the combined pressures of its economic success (which has generated a burgeoning middle class, thirsting for freedoms), the anticipation of change as Subatto grows old, and the collapse of communism as an ideological threat used to justify authoritarian controls. Indonesia, like the rest of Asia, may yet have to contend with China; but it will be with China as a power, not as a model.

Signs of restlessness abound. During my visit, the Indonesian bar association was holding its convention.

The losing candidate for chairman complained that his opponents had resorted to "cheap tricks" by characterizing him as a "government candidate." Meanwhile, the chief judge of the State Administration Court -- a new court created specifically for the adjudication of grievances by citizens against government officials -- admonished new justices as he swore them in: "If we rule against a government official's policy in favor of the people, we will be accused of lacking nationalism. We will be branded as judges who are not aware of consensus, family values, and development. We must be ready to be blamed."

The official, state-run labor organization was also holding its convention, opening with a speech by President Suharto and closing with a speech by Vice President Sutrisno. The convention's dutiful fealty to the government notwithstanding, the outgoing chairman criticized his own organization for having "done only little for workers since its establishment," adding that " workers are reluctant to join because they know they will gain nothing from it" ; therefore, "many workers want to set up their own labor unions."

On trial for insulting the president was a former member of the (rubber- stamp) legislature, who had organized demonstrations by Indonesian expatriates in Germany during a visit there by Suharto. The legislator lator, Sri Bintang, was stripped of his seat, but was fighting back with lawsuits of his own, challenging his expulsion.

The ordeal o Bintang was not the only reminder of Indonesian authoritarianism. Seven Western human-rights advocates arriving in East Timor to commemorate a massacre of five years ago were detained and promptly deported "for their own safety." And a "national discipline campaign" was launched in Jakarta by 15,000 volunteers empowered to ticket jaywalkers and litterers -- even to mete out on-the-spot punishment, such as push-ups. (The military comman- der in charge was reported as acknowledging, however, that discipline had "yet to catch on.")

One activist joked that, in Indonesia, "general elections mean elections by t he generals." The press is still cowed following the forced closing in 1994 of three weeklies -- including the nation's most popular, Tempo -- for their c ritical reports about government activities. The closings prompted the creation of an independent journalists association, which enrolled 300 members. The regi me has struck back by barring the se members from belonging simultaneously to the official journalists association -- a prerequisite for employment by all licensed publications.

Still, while lashing out at Sri Bintang and Tempo, the regime is giving ground on many fronts. The administrative court has shown genuine independence, for example ruling that the closing of Tempo was illegal, though the journal remains shuttered while the government appeals the decision.

Three years ago, a national human-rights commission was created by presidential decree. To the surprise of many, it has issued reports critical of the government with regard to Tempo, the case of a murdered labor organizer (which has attracted much attention), and the killings of civilians by soldiers in Irian Jaya. The commission is growing increasingly bold and is gradually winning the respect of independent human-rights advocates.

Among these activists, views of the United States are a curious mix. On the one hand, they resent their government's close ties to Washington; on the other, many of their own groups receive grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Another AID effort sent a bevy of young Indonesian economists to American schools. The knowledge they acquired there became the basis for the economic liberalization now powering Indonesia's growth.

With President Clinton, Indonesian human-rights advocates have had their share of disappointment.

They were given to believe that, to punish Jakarta for human-rights abuses, the U.S. trade representative might lift Indonesia's favorable status under the General System of Preferences. But when Clinton visited Indonesia for the 1994 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Suharto presented him with a batik shirt, and this, they joked bitterly, led the United States to back down.

The Indonesians" mixed feelings extend not only to the U.S. government but to some Western activists as well. The Scott paper company had announced plans to initiate foresting in the primitive reaches of Irian Jaya. But protests by Western environmentalists impelled Scott to withdraw, perhaps chastened by the bitter controversy enveloping the Louisiana-based Freeport company over its mining operations on that island. The upshot is that the foresting concession has been taken over by a Portuguese firm -- which Indonesian environmental advocates fear will prove a tougher adversary than the U.S. firm would have been.

During our meetings, ambivalence toward America was best reflected by some labor militants in Medan. In response to a sharp expression of anti-American anger, I asked for a list of grievances. They were three: the supposed sellout on trade; America's "silence" about the mistreatment of East Timor; and finally, and it seemed most importantly, "You have closed your consulate in Medan." (The consulate was a recent casualty of cuts in the State Department budget, which had left only one post, other than the embassy, in this archipelago of 17,000 islands.) The reason for the militants" anger over the closing? American diplomats had been interested in human rights, and this had stayed the hand of government repression. "A very big protection came from the U.S. consulate," explained the Indonesians, lamenting their loss -- and perhaps ours, as this sprawling Islamic nation lurches toward the post-Suharto era.

Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He traveled to Indonesia with the Puebla Institute, paid for by the United States Information Agency.

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