Washington Times, May 15, 1998

JAKARTA, Indonesia – Widespread rioting and looting gripped the Indonesian capital for a third day yesterday as power brokers maneuvered behind the scenes to pave the way for the end of President Suharto’s 32-year reign.

With 20 reported killed, the military ordered its troops to take over the streets.

“Jakarta is on fire. We’ll go anywhere,” said Siaumei Wen, a 27- year-old ethnic Chinese woman trying to buy plane tickets out for her family.

The city’s military commander, Maj. Gen. Syafrie Syamsudin, said on local television, “We must face rioters and looters firmly. We are soldiers who will support the nation and we will never surrender.”

Witnesses said security forces fired directly into crowds to try to clear the streets.

Frightened residents complained that the military failed to stop mobs rampaging through many parts of the city. In some places, the crowds cheered the troops and clambered aboard their vehicles as soldiers stood by, sometimes chatting with protesters.

The house of Indonesia’s richest man, Liem Soei Liong, an ethnic Chinese billionaire with close links to Suharto, was trashed and burned. The headquarters of the Social Affairs Department, headed by Suharto’s oldest daughter, also was gutted by fire.

In the country’s second city of Surabaya in East Java, witnesses said hundreds of shops were ransacked and burned by mobs until early Friday.

Vigilante squads and gangs of people carrying clubs patrolled the roads leading to ethnic Chinese neighborhoods as rain drenched the city of 10 million people.

There was a growing consensus within the armed forces that Suharto, who has ruled Indonesia for 32 years, must step aside, according to informed sources. The key questions remained how and when.

“The top commanders are not willing to show insubordination to the office of the president, so they want someone else to do the dirty work of telling him it is time to go,” according to sources with ties to the high command.

Armored vehicles moved on key sections of the city at nightfall, including the area around Suharto’s palace, even as the military chief of staff declared the rioting largely under control.

The U.S. embassy announced the voluntary evacuation of embassy families and nonessential personnel. The State Department was trying to organize commercial charter flights to evacuate Americans and the Pentagon said it was ready to provide protection and support if necessary.

“Clearly there is a cycle of violence that is escalating in Indonesia. The demonstrators are acting with increasing boldness and intensity,” said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin.

“We deplore the killings which have taken place and we strongly urge the security forces to show restraint and refrain from using lethal force.”

Several months of growing student protests calling for political and economic reform have now degenerated into near-anarchy, with the poor, urban masses of the nation that coined the phrase “to run amok” violently lashing out at those they believe have exploited them.

Thick clouds of black smoke hung over large sections of the city, where hundreds of shops and vehicles have been burned. Worst hit were the ethnic Chinese, traditional targets of violence for their domination of the country’s economy. A half-million people, many of them Chinese, died in the bloodbath that followed Indonesia’s last change of presidents in 1965.


Photo, Indonesian looters exit a Jakarta shop during rioting yesterday. Businesses of the economically dominant ethnic Chinese were especially hard-hit., By AP


Copyright Washington Times Library May 15, 1998

By Lawrence Pintak

Lawrence Pintak is an award-winning journalist and scholar. He is a former CBS News Middle East correspondent and was founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University (2009-2016). He was named a Fellow of the Society by the Society of Professional Journalists in 2017 for "outstanding service to the profession of journalism" around the world. Pintak is a contributor to ForeignPolicy.com, The Daily Beast, and other outlets. Read his articles at pintak.com. His books include Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & The War of Ideas; Islam for Journalists (co-editor); The New Arab Journalist; and Seeds of Hate: How America’s Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad. He holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Follow him on Twitter @LPintak.

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