Indonesian students retreat peacefully Protesters leave Parliament to avoid clash with troops

May 23, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Soldiers and riot police stormed onto the grounds of Indonesia's parliamentary complex last night and forced 2,000 students to peacefully leave the national political symbol they had held this week as part of their successful quest to topple President Suharto.

Waving flags and pumping their fists from atop public buses, the students retreated through the darkened streets of the capital before dawn in what seemed like a victory lap after helping end the reign of Asia's longest-serving leader.

Along the way, they cheered, clapped their hands and waved to well-wishers lining the streets. "Step down! Step down! Step down, Habibie!" the students sang in reference to the nation's new president and to the tune of an Indonesian children's song. "Hang him with Suharto."

Although some of their demands have not been met, students said they decided to leave to avoid a clash with the heavily armed troops.

"We didn't want to die for nothing,"said Heintje Rory, 24, a student at Jakarta Theological Seminary.

Some students said soldiers kicked them to get them to leave, but the military appeared to handle the operation with restraint. There were apparently no serious injuries.

University students were the first members of Indonesian society to call for the ouster of President Suharto, who had led the nation for 32 years but was unable to save it from the devastating economic crisis in which it remains mired. Under extraordinary public pressure, Suharto resigned Thursday and handed the reins to his vice president and close personal friend, B. J. Habibie.

Mixed reviews

The students' retreat from Parliament came after a long day in Jakarta in which Habibie unveiled his new Cabinet in the hope of persuading skeptics that he was opening a new chapter in Indonesian politics. The group drew mixed reviews. Critics said the Cabinet looked too much like Suharto's administration.

Twenty of the Cabinet's 36 members served under Suharto. Diplomats and officials from international financial agencies said Habibie has tried to include a broader array of Indonesians than in past Cabinets, put together a good economic team and retained some respected ministers.

In his first official act as president of the world's fourth-most populous country and largest Muslim nation, Habibie vowed his Cabinet would produce an honest, efficient and more pluralistic government. Unimpressed, students and opposition leaders continued their calls for a presidential election to replace Habibie.

"He must make a signal that he is responding to the demands for political change, but that signal was too weak and too soft," said Aristides Katoppo, former editor of one of Indonesia's largest newspapers and a longtime Suharto critic. "He has not succeeded in breaking from the shadow of Suharto. Suharto can still manipulate the strings."

The negative response to Habibie's Cabinet seemed to assure continued political turmoil in this nation of 200 million as it struggles to rebuild its economy and develop a more open political system after more than three decades of authoritarian rule.

Scuffles and rock throwing broke out around the Parliament building yesterday, after thousands of pro-Habibie demonstrators arrived to challenge university students who have been calling for Habibie's resignation.

Army troops separated the two groups and kept them at bay with a novel method of riot control: song and dance. About 20 soldiers eased tensions by singing an old Javanese song. The confrontation, though, might have persuaded the army to step in and end the student occupation before such clashes spun out of control.

Late last night, military commanders told the students that they were being moved out of Parliament because it needed cleaning for a special session of the People's Consultative Assembly, which chooses the president of Indonesia. Students and opposition leaders have called for such a session to replace Habibie -- Indonesia's third president since independence in 1945 -- and some appeared to accept the military's explanation for their removal.

Unrealistic goals

While many criticized Habibie's new Cabinet, they acknowledged that he had removed the worst Suharto cronies and noted that completely scrapping the executive-branch leadership on short notice was unrealistic.

Gone from the Cabinet yesterday was Suharto's oldest daughter, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, who served as social welfare minister. Mohamad Hasan, Suharto's golfing buddy and one of the nation's wealthiest men, also lost his job.

In a further sign that the Suharto family's stock might be dropping, Army chief Gen. Wiranto demoted a rival, hard-line general who is married to Suharto's second daughter, Siti Hediati.

Wiranto, who retained his Cabinet seat, stripped control of the army's top combat force from Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto yesterday and sent him to serve as commandant of the Staff and Command College in the city of Bandung in West Java.

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