After 32 years, Suharto resigns No. 2 to serve out Indonesian’s term

Washington Times, May 21, 1998

JAKARTA, Indonesia - After more than three decades of unrivaled rule over the world's fourth-most-populous nation, Indonesian President Suharto has resigned.

"After truly considering the opinions of parliament and heads of factions in it, I decide to declare withdrawal as president of the republic of Indonesia," a humbled Suharto said on nationwide television just two days after unveiling a compromise plan that would have allowed a phased transfer of power.

The 76-year-old leader announced that Vice President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie would complete the balance of the five-year term to which Suharto was elected in March.

In Washington, President Clinton welcomed the resignation, saying it "provides an opportunity to begin a process leading to a real democratic transition for Indonesia."

In a statement released by the White House, Mr. Clinton said the United States "stands ready to support Indonesia as it engages in democratic change."

Suharto's resignation was a dramatic end to a confrontation that brought the country to the brink of anarchy. Indonesia's only other change of presidents, Suharto's takeover from President Sukarno, was phased in over a period of years in the mid-1960s.

A retired five-star army general and Asia's longest-serving ruler, Suharto guided the nation of 202 million through unprecedented prosperity. Yet his people blamed him for the country's sudden, painful economic and social slide set off by the 1997 Asian economic crisis.

Born 400 miles east of Jakarta near Yogyakarta, Suharto is the son of a poor rice farmer. He began his military training in 1940 and joined the revolutionary army that fought Dutch attempts to reclaim the archipelago after Indonesia declared its independence in 1945.

Suharto, who was appointed to a seventh consecutive term in March, came to power after crushing an abortive leftist coup in 1965. Backed by fellow military officers, he reined in and then replaced Sukarno, Indonesia's founding president, in 1967.

Among his most controversial decisions were the 1975 invasion of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor and, in 1996, sending security forces in against supporters of opposition figure Megawati Sukarnoputri.

More than three decades later, his vice president, Mr. Habibie, has taken the oath of office, as Suharto and the top military leadership stood by. Armed forces commander Gen. Wiranto then vowed his support for the new president and made clear there would be no reprisals against the former strongman.

"ABRI will uphold the cultural values of this nation. ABRI will protect the safety and the respectability of former presidents including President Suharto and his family," Gen. Wiranto told the nation, using the Indonesian term for the armed forces.

A late-night revolt by Suharto's most powerful Cabinet ministers was the final act that forced the 76-year-old leader to face the inevitable and step down. With hundreds of thousands of Indonesians rallying to demand his immediate resignation, the military lining the streets of his capital and even longtime loyalists abandoning him, Suharto faced little choice but to step down.

Suharto said that while the Cabinet was not being disbanded, ministerial powers were being suspended temporarily. It was not clear whether Mr. Habibie would move forward with a Reform Council designed to reform the nation's political system.

The hand-over of power appeared certain to bring calm to a nation racked by violence and unrest since the shooting deaths of several students early last week unleashed a wave of uncontrolled rioting by the poor and the unemployed that claimed more than 500 lives and heavily damaged huge sections of the capital.

The president's decision followed a day of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the nation's political elite to find a way to persuade the aging leader to step down before the nation was plunged anew into violence. The parliamentary delegation of Suharto's own party, Golkar, yesterday voted for a quick convening of the expanded parliamentary body that elects the president, the 1,000-member People's Assembly (MPR), so that Suharto could hand back the mandate he has held for more than 30 years.

"As long as Suharto is in power, reforms will not be possible," said Amien Rais, a key opposition figure, after addressing the crowds of students occupying parliament. Earlier, Mr. Rais withdrew his call for a million-person march on Jakarta for fear of a Tiananmen Square- style massacre."

But beneath the rhetoric and the Peaceful Reform banners hanging in villages across the country, there was a growing consensus that the prospect of a quick hand-over was giving way to a slower process that would, at the very least, involve a plenary session of the People's Assembly.

Indonesia's powerful generals remained the pillar on which Suharto's fate rested. Elite troops controlled by the president's son-in-law, Maj. Gen. Prabowo, threw a ring of steel around the presidential palace, while other units encircled the rally at parliament and sealed off large sections of the capital.

But the soldiers appeared to go out of their way to avoid confrontations, allowing busloads of students to enter parliament, even as they kept everyone else out.

"The army is no longer supporting Suharto, it is supporting the institution, said one Western diplomat. They want this done constitutionally. They don't want to set the precedent of an Indonesian president being driven out by the mobs."

Time was working against the president. He was faced with a situation where he had to quickly demonstrate progress toward genuine reform, or the vast majority of Indonesians would conclude his mea culpa was a smokescreen to retain power.

"What I wonder is whether the country can survive long enough to change all these laws," said a member of the outgoing Cabinet. "The economy is dead. Foreign investors have fled. Can we afford to wait six, or even 18 months, to get things moving again?"

Said political analyst Arbi Sanit: "There should be a change of the national leadership now and the formation of a national government that is trusted by the people."

Demands from former Suharto loyalists for a quick transition appeared to have as much to do with jockeying for power in a post- Suharto era as concern for the nation's stability.

Members of Suharto's party in parliament have the most to lose by electoral reform. By urging the president to hand over power to the People's Assembly before electoral reform is launched, they protect their role in selecting the nation's next leader.

The reform plan unveiled by Suharto on Tuesday was drawn up by Indonesia's powerful generals.

* This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Photo, Indonesian President Suharto, who has led the nation for 32 years, announces his resignation in Jakarta today., By AP


Copyright Washington Times Library May 21, 1998

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