ad info

 web features
 magazine archive
 customer service
  east asia
  southeast asia
  south asia
  central asia

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


Unprecedented public pressure forced Suharto to say he would finally step down. But when - and at what price?

By Susan Berfield and
Jose Manuel Tesoro / Jakarta

Timeline : Suharto's fall

INDONESIA'S PARLIAMENT COMPLEX, with its distinctive curved, green roof, was a metaphor for Suharto's lock on power. In 32 years, no legislation was passed there. No passionate debates rang out. It was, in fact, a temple to a Javanese king. Not anymore. On May 19, it became a symbol of People Power. Early that morning, students began arriving by military transport, hundreds of them from nearly four dozen universities, pouring through guarded gates. By the next evening, some 12,000 of them had taken up residence. They wore their school colors, gave mock speeches and poked fun at a president not known for his sense of humor.

The students came because a once-invincible enemy at long last seemed vulnerable. They had lost faith in him. It was time for the president to go. When they arrived at parliament, they fully expected to celebrate Suharto's resignation. But the wily strongman had another shadow play to perform. In a speech to the nation, he promised political renewal and economic reform - but on his terms and on his watch. It was not enough, and the students intended to stay put until he bowed out. "Suharto must go. Full stop," one student proclaimed. "He is playing a game of words." University of Indonesia student Alip, whose father is a farmer in Solo, said his family told him not to return home until Suharto stepped down. "I wonder," said Muslim youth leader Fahri Hamzah, "if the president understands that we can't rely on him anymore."

Only two months before, Suharto had still seemed unassailable. Two weeks before, police were still able to stop students marching on parliament. Now they were holding a vigil inside. They listened to speeches, sang protest songs, watched mime and put up posters demanding new leaders. One banner was 40 meters long, put in place by students rappelling from the roof of the seven-story building. "Return sovereignty to the people," it said. "Thirty-two years is enough."

Later that night, the pressure seemed to be paying off. A student representative told the assembled crowds that House Speaker Harmoko had delivered Suharto an ultimatum: stand down by May 22. Either that or be impeached by a special session of the People's Consultative Assembly, the body that had rubber-stamped his seventh five-year term two months earlier. Cheers erupted in the parliamentary grounds.

But this being Java, things quickly became less clear. A member of Golkar, Suharto's ruling party, told students its members would hold a special assembly by June 8, at which they would impeach the president and vice president. No one in the parliamentary complex was sure where the military stood on this. All week there had been rumors that the armed forces were dangerously split. As influential Muslim leader Amien Rais told the students earlier that day: "I'm sure [Suharto's] days are numbered. Our task now as a nation is to topple him without bloodshed." The prospects for Indonesia remained dire and possibly explosive, but clearly the endgame had begun.


People Power Indonesian-style started with tragedy - as popular revolutions so often do. On May 12, security forces gunned down four students after a rally at Trisakti University in Jakarta. The anti-Suharto cause had its first martyrs, and their deaths ignited riots that shattered the capital and were heard as far away as Cairo, where Suharto was attending a summit.

It was Indonesia's day of reckoning. For 35-plus hours, ordinary people ran amok in the capital, stealing what they could carry, burning whatever they wanted, destroying anything that smacked of authority. The violence was not random and it was not restrained. People tore down traffic lights, wrecked cash machines, turned over vehicles, set fire to shopping malls, threw stones through office windows, robbed the homes of ethnic Chinese.

Mobs demolished car showrooms that sold the Timor, produced by Suharto's son, Tommy. They burned down the social affairs ministry, run by Suharto's daughter, Tutut, and torched toll booths on a highway she built. They ransacked a house owned by Liem Sioe Liong, one of Suharto's oldest friends and Indonesia's richest man. Rioters burned his cars - a Volvo, a Mercedes and a Suzuki van. They slashed a portrait of Liem, looted the place and set it alight. Liem had already left the country. It was a battle against the privileged. And they were outnumbered 100 to one.

The discontented, the resentful, the angry of Jakarta sacked their own city. The rioters were people like Adi Santoso, a man bursting with hurt pride. There are millions like him, people left out of the Suharto boom. Two years before Santoso had dropped out of university because his parents could no longer afford it. He applied for clerical jobs, but never got one. Sometimes he didn't even get in the front door. Santoso, 24, says his own people (the pribumi) discriminated against him. He tried to set up an auto-supply business, but was "frozen out of the network because it is controlled by Chinese." Finally he found work as an assistant mechanic. Sometimes he was obliged to sell stolen car parts on the black market.

On May 14, he wanted to taste something sweeter. In Tanah Abang, Jakarta's garment-distribution district, Santoso grabbed what he could. A television, clothes, a laptop computer, Levis and cans of food. "I just want to take some of the fruits of development," he said. His main targets were Chinese-run businesses, and he had plenty to choose from. "Who owns the offices in the high-rise buildings?" he asked. "Are there many pribumi businessmen? Not so many." Adi Santoso had been left behind.

Jakarta is a city where the poor, the young, the uneducated lie in wait. Many are provincial migrants, uprooted from tradition with no place in the modern world. In other cities, the underclass is not left to fend for itself. Organizations speak for them, unions protect them, civic groups draw them in. But Suharto has never liked the idea of activists organizing the poor - certainly not in his capital. His government has not merely ignored such groups, it has often obstructed their work.

The poor are prey for officials and police. They are harassed and pushed around. They are people like Arifin Hanif, who during riots in 1996 was accused of belonging to the opposition. He was held for two weeks while soldiers used water torture in a failed attempt to make him admit he was an activist. Ever since then, Hanif had thirsted for revenge. When the riots erupted, he saw his chance. "This is the sort of situation I have been waiting for," Hanif said with a glint in his eyes. "It is time for the Chinese to pay their bill and time to get even with the troops for what they did to me."

It is not as if the downtrodden are all apolitical. The trouble is that the class chasm has just been wrenched wider still. Whoever comes after Suharto will have to deliver the fruits of development to the poor. Of course, not everybody running through the streets of Jakarta on May 14 was aggrieved. Some were just greedy. They were the ones in the back alleys, bragging about what they had stolen. They were the ones who looked for themselves on the TV news. This was not People Power. This was simple thuggery.

As Jakarta burned, the military could do little to halt this explosion of fear, anger and greed. In fact, many soldiers secretly sympathized with the people but couldn't demonstrate their feelings publicly. Many just stood by and watched the action. Troops who were called to secure Indofood's Jakarta distribution center even helped the looters. The company's marketing manager, Lukman, watched from his office on the second floor as the soldiers asked rioters to line up for merchandise. "Once you've got enough, please go outside and give other people their chance," he said the troops told those inside the warehouse. At a branch of Liem's Bank Central Asia, security forces arrived after a mob set fire to the automatic cash machines; they warned people not to stand to close to the flames.

Schools and businesses shut down, taxis and buses stopped operating, neighborhoods organized security watches. Middle-class families put up signs of mourning for the "reformation heroes," who died at Trisakti University. They flew the Indonesian flag at half-mast, put up posters saying, "We support reformation" or "We sympathize."

Those ethnic Chinese who could flee, did so to hotels or the airport. Foreign companies and international organizations ordered employees to leave. Diplomats helped evacuate others. Students stayed on their campuses, some overnight. Outside the National University, rioters urged student demonstrators to take to the streets. The students refused; violence was not their way. Security guards managed to lock the gates just before the rioters moved toward the campus. Troops sealed off the city center and guarded the president's residence. Military trucks picked up people stranded, or just loitering, and brought them home. Thousands of soldiers patrolled the streets on foot, on motorcycles and in tanks.

By May 15, Jakarta's roads were empty of everyday traffic, smoke drifted from burned-out buildings. More than 500 people had died, many in malls torched by rioters, some shot by police. Few areas of the city had been spared. Thousands of buildings had been reduced to rubble. All told, one billion dollars worth of destruction.


At first, Suharto seemed to think that asking a few unpopular cabinet ministers (maybe even his daughter Tutut and his friend Mohamad "Bob" Hasan) to resign would appease the people. He had a pliant parliament and loyal military. It seemed enough. Then he lost the parliament. A once-trusted ally, a former minister and the current house speaker, turned on Suharto. Harmoko announced that the leaders of parliament wanted the president to resign "for the sake of national unity." Even as Harmoko was speaking, his house in Solo was burning.

It was a totally unexpected move from the most unlikely person. It could have had the most enormous consequences. But the head of the military, Gen. Wiranto, came to Suharto's defense. He may have been worried that if the president really did step down then the vice president would really have to step in. The military does not regard B. J. Habibie too highly, and many people do not respect him. Wiranto may have been looking for a way to allow a more promising leader to take over. He may have been protecting the constitution. He may have wanted to spare Suharto the humiliation. A few hours later, Wiranto said that Harmoko's statement was just one individual's opinion and carried no legal weight. But its moral authority was undeniable

On May 19, Jakarta was abuzz with rumors. The military was said to be meeting behind closed doors. The opposition was divided over the pace of change. Suharto was scheduled to go on national television to make a rare speech to the nation. The president's days seemed numbered, but no one knew what he would say. Few were prepared for the sight of the Asia's longest-serving leader, the smiling general, standing before his people offering to relinquish power.

Reading from a prepared script, Suharto vowed to go as soon as possible. He promised new parliamentary elections under new laws; that he would not seek another term in office; that he would set up a reform council to look into corruption, monopolies, whatever. He said it all on live television, with nine prominent Muslim leaders standing behind him. He said it looking relaxed, smiling. He just didn't say when it all would happen.

Suharto built Indonesia's political system; it exists to keep him in power and his opponents powerless. The country's economic structure benefits his cronies and kids. If any of this was going to change, Suharto wanted to have his say. Sure, he would like to step down once Indonesia was calm. Sure, he would like to select his successor, guard his family's empire and choose his new title. But the days were gone when such decisions were Suharto's to make. And the people knew it.

For several weeks, plans had been under way for massive demonstrations to take place on May 20, the 90th anniversary of National Awakening Day, which commemorates the birth of Indonesia's nationalist movement. All over the country, students had been preparing to march. A million people were expected to gather at the national monument in central Jakarta, not far from where the president was holed up in his modest residence. But days earlier, Gen. Wiranto had ordered thousands of troops and tanks into the capital. The soldiers, he said, would brook no further disturbances, and this time they would shoot looters on sight.

The students were convinced that Suharto was stalling. Initially, his offer to step aside had been greeted with wild cheers. But the initial excitement quickly gave way to deep skepticism. Oh to be sure, the televised speech was historic; never before had Bapak, father, looked so vulnerable. Yet it wasn't the first time that he had made empty pledges. Before long cries for him to step down pronto rang out in the parliamentary complex - and the stage seemed set for a showdown that would make Tiananmen look like a bar-room scuffle.

During the night, soldiers cordoned off the square with barbed wire and declared it a forbidden zone. By daylight, hundreds of troops armed with assault rifles sealed off the city with light tanks and armored personnel carriers.

National Awakening Day dawned hot and steamy. Busloads of students waving the Indonesian flag arrived at parliament to join their colleagues who had spent the night. People on the street chanted "Suharto step down, Suharto step down." Alumni brought lunch boxes, water and cigarettes to the students. At one point, three women in a Mercedes ferried in nourishment. Less prosperous folk passed in peanut crackers and bananas.

Dozens of food vendors set up their stalls outside the grounds - even during this tense time they saw an opportunity to make some money. The complex was littered, the students tired, the sun as hot as ever. Inside, the pungent smell of clove cigarettes mingled with the odor of unwashed bodies. May 20 could be the day, the beginning of a new kind of awakening. No one wanted to return home.

Then, Amien Rais, head of the 28-million member Muslim group, Muhammidiyah, went on national radio and television to urge the people not to march. "I am worried that victims might fall among both the people and the military," he said. For a while it seemed a foolish gambit, coming too late to stop trouble. And yet peace reigned that day in Jakarta. Both sides showed restraint.

Later that morning, Rais was welcomed by the students in the parliament complex. Emil Salim, a former environment minister who ignored protocol and nominated himself vice president in February, gave a speech too. A group of stockbrokers, dressed in suits and calling themselves the Indonesian Young Professionals, arrived in the afternoon. The parliament had become the place to be and be seen.


On the evening of May 20, the students began leaving the parliament after Suharto's erstwhile allies announced impeachment proceedings. The situation in the complex was becoming dangerous. Unidentified people were starting to cause trouble - burning documents, trashing rooms. The students did not wish to taint their victory or their reputation. By 9:30 p.m., the grounds were nearly deserted.

Suharto would presumably have to obey his own party. But the role of the military was difficult to discern. Were they part of the proceedings? Or against them?

Suharto remained in his private residence, surrounded by troops. For most of his rule the president had maneuvered the military for his own purposes. Now he was at their mercy. Talk of a split in the army, of a coup, of a massacre, of civil war was all over Jakarta. But for now the generals seemed to be in a position to influence the choice of the next president, reduce their political role and become real professionals. If they stayed united, that is, and if they refrained from violence.

For 32 years, Indonesian politics has centered on one man. His gestures, his hints mattered. Because so little was revealed, so much had to be imagined. Indonesian politics has always been drama and disbelief. These days many believe they are witnessing a show, in which every event has been scripted. Perhaps. But this is certainly not how Suharto would have written the story.

Yet, that his end would come this way had long been prophesied. Soothsayers say Javanese kings lose power in an age of madness, when institutions are turned upside-down, social order disrupted. Academics warned about a system that revolved around one man, about his reluctance to prepare a successor, about the inequality gap. This is Suharto's legacy: a system so pervasive that its collapse will be complete.

Indonesia's capital has been sacked; the rupiah is nearly worthless. The legal system has been a tool in Suharto's hands. The bureaucracy contrived to keep him in power. The opposition is coming of age, but may not be ready in time. Indonesians have no experience with democracy or politics. All they can hope for, says political scientist Muhammad Hikam, is a "transition from totalitarianism to benevolent authoritarianism." How long that might take no one knows.

For nearly a third of a century, Suharto ruled the nation. Most Indonesians have known no other president. He dominated politics, controlled the military, guided the economy. No important decisions were made without him; he always had the final say. Many believed he would reign until his death. But even Suharto now knows he cannot survive that long. He cannot even endure until his term ends in 2003. People will not wait five years. He may not last the year, or the month. But he will not leave one hour before he is forced to, though it certainly does not have to end in bloodshed. Suharto's people have turned on him. He held on to power too tightly, and it has finally slipped from his fingers.

- With reporting by Dewi Loveard/Jakarta


APRIL 1996

Suharto's wife and most trusted adviser Siti "Tien" Hartinah dies, prompting speculation that he will not stand for re-election in 1998.

JUNE 1996

Megawati is expelled as head of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). Hundreds of her supporters occupy the party HQ in Jakarta. A rainbow of activists queue up to denounce Suharto's rule.

JULY 1996

Riots convulse Jakarta after the government-supported takeover of Megawati's HQ

JULY 1997

The Thai baht is floated, sparking the regional crisis. The rupiah begins to fall and Jakarta widens the currency's trading band to compensate.

August 1997

Management of the exchange rate is abandoned.


The rupiah passes 3,800 to the U.S. dollar. IMF help is called in but a $43-billion aid package fails to bolster the currency.


A new budget is announced using a now unrealistic exchange rate of 4,000. The rupiah dives further and, despite a second IMF agreement, hits a record low of 17,000. A revised budget and a temporary freeze on debt servicing are announced. Chinese shops are attacked in Java.


The government announces it is considering a currency board system on the advice of U.S. economist Steve Hanke. The IMF responds by threatening to stop funds. Students begin protesting and hunger striking.

MARCH 1998

Suharto questions the effectiveness of the IMF reforms, and the Fund withholds a $3-billion payment. Suharto is re-elected to the presidency unopposed and within the week students clash with police in Jakarta. Armed forces chief Gen. Wiranto offers to meet the protesters, but they demand to see Suharto himself. The idea of a currency board is abandoned.

APRIL 1998

A third agreement is inked with the IMF. Student protests increase and spread. Clashes with the police turn violent and cabinet ministers, including Suharto's daughter Tutut, meet with the demonstrators. Activists who had "disappeared" resurface and tell of their ordeals. An agreement is made on restructuring the nation's foreign debt, which now amounts to nearly $80 billion. An IMF deadline to implement the bulk of reforms is met.

MAY 1998

Suharto says political reform will not begin until his term ends in 2003. Ministers hurry to clarify that changes will nevertheless be prepared in advance. Fuel subsidies are suspended in line with the IMF agreement. The prices of petrol, diesel and kerosene rocket. Thousands riot in Medan. Student demonstrations increase in size and spill off campus. Four students are shot dead in Jakarta, sparking riots and forcing Suharto to cut short a visit to Egypt, stating that he will not cling to power if he has lost the confidence of the people. He returns to mounting pressure for his resignation. On the 18th, house speaker Harmoko calls for Suharto to stand down, but the army declares the demand has "no legal basis." The following day, Suharto promises new elections in which neither he nor his veep will run, but by leaving the date open fails to silence his critics. On the 20th Harmoko urges him to step down or face impeachment.

Next Story

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

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

Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

Today on CNN

Back to the top   © 2000 Asiaweek. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.