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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


With the killing of six Jakarta students, momentum for change builds

By Susan Berfield and
Jose Manuel Tesoro / JAKARTA

Harsh Lessons: A timeline of the students' semester of turmoil

Madness in Medan: A dispatch from Indonesia's third city

FRUSTRATION, ANGER, maybe conspiracy took over late in the afternoon of May 12 outside an elite private university in west Jakarta. Security forces shot rubber and live bullets at unarmed students who had been calling for President Suharto to take responsibility for the economic crisis and step down. Six were killed, dozens injured. The violence was sudden, unprovoked and unprecedented. In those few moments, Indonesia's possibilities narrowed. The movement for political reform, carried along for three months by daily student demonstrations throughout the country, reached a turning point. Suharto even cut short an official visit to Egypt. His vice president, B.J. Habibie, expressed the government's "deepest condolences." The armed forces promised to investigate. Yet for everybody - students, military, ordinary Indonesians, intellectuals and, of course, the president - there is no going back. "The damage has been done," says Umar Juoro of the Institute for National Development Studies. "People will not accept this."

President Suharto has always expected Indonesians to accept a lot: 32 years of one man's rule, unrestrained cronyism, limited political representation and even less dissent. Now they have to put up with a rupiah worth next to nothing, rapid price increases for basic goods and growing unemployment. Suharto's legitimacy has crumbled. His current - seventh - term just began in March and does not end until 2003. For years, and even until recently, people believed that Suharto would not relinquish power until he was ready, or dead. Now many do not want to wait that long. "People want change right now, if possible yesterday," says prominent newspaper publisher Aristides Katoppo. The head of the armed forces, Gen. Wiranto, has said he gets the message. But the military fears that "too much change too soon will lead to an uncontrollable situation," says Katoppo. These are the two worlds of Indonesia today: the critics who want Suharto to step down immediately and the military, dreading what will happen if he does. Indonesia is in a bind, and in danger.

At one in the afternoon of May 12, some 5,000 students from Trisakti, one of the capital's most prestigious private universities, were demonstrating against Suharto. The students had gathered near the campus on one of the city's busiest highways (built by the president's eldest daughter, Tutut) and were blocking traffic. They had wanted to march to the parliament building, but troops prevented them from doing so. Students and soldiers faced each other for hours.

By 5 p.m., the students had negotiated with the commander of the troops to retreat; one row of students would back off for every row of police that did. But then the security forces charged, shooting into the crowd with rubber and live bullets. They continued even as students retreated inside the campus. Within hours, six bodies lay in the morgue and dozens in the emergency room of a nearby hospital.

No one is sure what set off the troops. But by the next day, many worrying theories were circulating in Jakarta:that someone in the military or in the establishment wanted to send a message to the rich and the influential - you are not safe. Or wanted to create such chaos that a military crackdown might seem necessary, even reasonable - and might scare off countrywide protests planned for May 20, National Awakening Day.

The students had been optimistic, even cheerful, as the day began. "People are still afraid," said 22-year-old Zaki, an electrical engineering student at Trisakti. "But they are getting braver." By that evening, the hopefulness had vanished, leaving behind only a grim resolve edged with anger and vengeance. Said one youth: "The movement will continue."

There is no reason to stop. The International Monetary Fund requires Jakarta to introduce some financial reforms that, in the short term, are causing economic hardships to worsen. Several subsidies have been reduced. Beginning May 12, train fares doubled. Electricity prices will eventually be about 60% higher, while water rates will increase by 65%. The price of fertilizer (remember Indonesia is an agricultural country) rose 12.5% in the past month. Since the beginning of the economic crisis, the price of rice has risen 38%, cooking oil 110%, chicken 86% and milk 60%. An estimated 8 million children will not be able to go to school next year because of higher tuition fees. Book prices are already up as high as 70%. A conservative estimate of the number of unemployed this year is more than 10 million. What happens in Indonesia is watched elsewhere. On May 13, Southeast Asian currencies (including the rupiah) and bourses weakened considerably because of the political fallout from Indonesia. Bangkok announced it would prepare for the evacuation of Thai nationals if necessary. Tokyo warned that repression would not do. Washington condemned the shootings and canceled a military exercise.

The day after the killings, several thousand students attended a memorial service on Trisakti campus. A plastic tent marked a blood stain on the pavement; the Indonesian flag flew at half-mast; and nearly every one of the government's critics arrived to give a speech. Amien Rais, who leads a 28-million member Muslim organization and has said he is ready to lead the country too, was there. So was Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia's founding president, ousted head of a government-approved political party and generally the quietest of the president's critics. Emil Salim, who had defied New Order etiquette and nominated himself for vice president in February, showed up. So did the former governor of Jakarta, Ali Sadikin, and Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, a former cabinet minister and a member in not-so-good standing of the ruling party, Golkar.

Of all the words spoken that morning, perhaps those of Amien Rais were the most direct: "The military is now faced with two choices: to protect an individual and his family, or the nation as a whole." What was left unsaid was this: The government and the military fear nothing more than a coalition of students, the elite and the working (or not working) class. Yet it is forming. Its leaders will have to maintain the pressure for change without provoking even worse violence.

After the commemoration, though, the mood turned ugly. Outside the campus gates rioters vandalized cars parked at the luxury Citraland shopping mall and set on fire two toll-road offices. In nearby areas of the sprawling city, youths did what damage they could with stones, knives and matches. Stores were looted and buildings burned. Rioters blocked the highway from the airport, which passes by Trisakti University. One person was killed and nine injured as security forces tried to control the mobs. In Jogjakarta, students clashed with authorities and were reported to have thrown molotov cocktails. Police responded with water cannons and tear gas.

Indonesia is paralyzed by Suharto's system. "He has a lock on all the institutional levers," says Katoppo. Five different laws limit the number of political parties to three, fill the electoral college with appointees and hand the government the power to decide who can form a political organization. Indonesians are left with a parliament and electoral college that can be called representative only with a wink, and are more often than not used by Suharto to legitimize his rule. These are the only institutions Indonesians can use to remove him from power legally. And they are not enough. "It takes too long to use the procedures," says Faisal Basri, a political economist at the University of Indonesia. "People are too tired."

One way out could be to hold a special session of the People's Consultative Assembly, the 1,000-member body that installed Suharto and Habibie. Many - including an organization of Muslim intellectuals that Habibie once led - think this is a pretty good idea. According to the rules, more than half the assembly is appointed by the government (read: president). This has assured that Suharto runs unopposed, as he did in March. But the assembly could hold another vote and this time open up the selection process. Says Katoppo: "They may be loyalists and royalists, but they will go with the winds of change."

And the armed forces could help push them along. The military may be aware that, in such a volatile situation, repression could backfire. Then again, maybe not. Wiranto, as well as every other senior military commander, was appointed (by Suharto) because he is loyal to the president. A four-star general who also serves as minister of defense, Wiranto is a highly regarded professional soldier, someone whom Suharto's critics want to believe is on their side. The missing political activists? Wiranto didn't know about their kidnappings and reported torture; someone went over his head or behind his back. The shootings? Someone else is responsible. But even if Wiranto backs the calls for change, he may not have the support of other top officers to do much. More important is what Suharto does next. It will determine whether the president stays or goes.

- With additional reporting by Dewi Loveard/Jakarta and Yenni Kwok/Hong Kong

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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