Washington Times, May 18, 1998
JAKARTA, Indonesia – In the long tradition of Third-World dictators under siege, President Suharto dug in over the weekend, ordering the military to crack down on unrest and offering only cosmetic changes in response to riots that made a charred skeleton of his capital.
Three days after returning to Indonesia, the 76-year-old leader appeared smiling and relaxed in television footage, apparently oblivious to mounting calls for his resignation from high-ranking former supporters.
Tanks and troops were deployed throughout Jakarta in anticipation of new demonstrations today and Wednesday, which threaten a renewal of the violence that has already left more than 500 persons dead.
The first test of the military’s control of the streets will come today when mass funerals are planned for the charred remains of 185 looters killed by arson fires in luxury shopping malls they were plundering.
With tens of thousands of foreigners fleeing the country on commercial and chartered flights, leading figures in the political establishment seem to have concluded that Indonesia is doomed as long as Suharto remains in power.
In criticism that would have been unthinkable just days ago, Sarwono Kusumaatmajda, a former environment minister and an aide to Suharto, told the Jakarta Post that the president should step down.
“I will be sad, and I pity him if he stays for his own interests, because we already know that he’s increasingly becoming part of the problem,” Mr. Kusumaatmajda said.
The newspaper also quoted Subroto, a former mines and energy minister, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.
“What we need is a new president, a new vice president and a new Cabinet lineup comprising members who are really, really clean and professional,” Subroto said.
Even if Suharto survives the immediate challenge, international business confidence is dead. There is no chance foreign investors will return until a new president is installed.
That means the economy, which collapsed over the past six months, will grind to a halt, raising the specter of tens of millions of unemployed and widespread hunger.
“Even if he gets beyond this, he’ll spend the next five years under siege, if someone doesn’t manage to put a bullet in his head,” said one foreign business analyst.
After today’s funerals, the next big test will come Wednesday. Student rallies are planned across the country to mark a patriotic holiday that, perhaps prophetically, marks “the rebirth of the nation.”
A failure by the opposition to stage a mass turnout could bolster the president’s position. How the armed forces respond will be equally critical.
The military, which holds the key to Indonesia’s future, continues to vacillate, with top commanders indicating their support for reform, but stopping short of confronting their commander in chief.
Armed forces chief of staff Wiranto “still has his feet on both sides of the fence,” said a source close to the ruling circle. “The generals thought the old man would resign when he came back from Cairo. Now they’re caught between their duty to the state and their loyalty to him.”
Further complicating the situation is a cultural aversion to speaking directly or challenging authority. That was demonstrated over the weekend as university rectors met with the president to convey student demands for his resignation.
“We held up the constitution and told him, `We think you understand what we mean to say,’ ” a spokesman for the group later told reporters. It was a classic example of the subtlety and innuendo with which Indonesia’s dominant Javanese ethnic group communicates.
Even as the charred bodies of looters trapped in a series of shopping mall fires piled up in the morgues, Suharto sent word through an aide that he would reshuffle his Cabinet in response to “the people’s demand for reform.” More than a day later, he had yet to release any details.
Cabinet sources said Suharto’s daughter, known as Tutut, and his golfing buddy, timber baron Mohammed “Bob” Hasan, were among at least seven ministers being sacked. The pair represented the most egregious symbols of the nepotism, cronyism and corruption that have come to mark Suharto’s rule.
The reshuffling was widely condemned as too little, too late.
“What the people are demanding is a moral accounting, not another political maneuver,” said former Cabinet member Sarwono Kusumaatmadja. “It’s like a bad tooth. It needs to be pulled. A filling isn’t enough.”
Photo, Residents of Clodok, a Chinese district of Jakarta, Indonesia, assess the damage from last week’s riots., By AP
Credit: THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Copyright Washington Times Library May 18, 1998