Explosion of rage in Indonesia Suharto: Ruler is the problem, his departure would be solution, army must choose between him and nation.

May 18, 1998

THE EXPLOSION of rage in Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country, is directed at Suharto, the military dictator for the past 32 years. For many years, he posed as the savior of his country, holding it together, with justificiation some of that time. No more.

For the good of his 200 million people, Suharto should step down. Nothing he can do now would assuage their anger. Some of it is directed at the wrong targets, such as ethnic Chinese. Some of it turns into sheer looting. The six students whose deaths from shooting sparked the worst violence were replaced by lower class, economically hopeless youths as the cutting edge of rebellion. Marines who interposed themselves with discipline between marching demonstrators and riot police were a harbinger of the logical end.

Suharto, long a cold war ally of the United States and beneficiary of military aid, has lost touch. He spurned advice when he formed his newest government, making a crony vice president and his daughter a cabinet minister dealing with poverty, just because outsiders advised him otherwise. He went to Cairo to a summit of developing world leaders while his own capital, Jakarta, was on the bubble. He returned early, needing an armored convoy from the airport, to find it burning, businesses owned by his children gutted.

Nobody thinks Indonesia could become a democracy overnight. It never was. The army that put General Suharto in power considers itself the unifying force of the country, given a huge political role by the constitution he made. It is conscientious and not over-large for a country that huge.

General Wiranto, the army chief, is a former Suharto aide respected as a responsible pragmatist. All Indonesia is fixated on the precedent in the Philippines in 1986, when that army joined the demonstrators to overthrow the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Indonesia needs healing, which cannot begin until Suharto has removed himself or been removed. There were milder options, but the time for them has past.

Pub Date: 5/18/98

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