Suharto's resignation brings peace, for now New Indonesian president must rebuild economy, confidence in nation

May 24, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Just a few days ago this nation of more than 200 million was bracing for the worst: mass bloodshed in the capital and perhaps civil war.

Expatriates who had not already fled Jakarta poured into the airport desperate to escape. Hotels warned guests, some of whom had left their homes because of earlier violence, to draw their curtains and stay away from the windows.

Opponents of then-President Suharto planned a demonstration of up to 1 million people on Wednesday, just days after rioting had left more than 500 dead. The nation's military chief, Gen. Wiranto, deployed 40,000 troops as well as tanks and armored personnel carriers to stop them.

When dawn broke Wednesday, though, the streets of Jakarta were peaceful. Opposition leader Amien Rais had called off the demonstration to avoid more violence. Suharto's rubber-stamp Parliament stepped up demands that he quit.

And finally, cornered after 32 years in office, Suharto decided to spare his country more suffering. He announced his resignation Thursday and handed over power to his close friend, vice-president B. J. Habibie.

"I apologize for my mistakes and shortcomings," Suharto told the nation in a televised address. "And I hope that Indonesia will remain strong."

Although the full story of his fall might not be known for some time, the peaceful transition last week seemed a triumph of politics over force in a society where political change has often come at great human cost. For the time being, Indonesia chose to learn from its history rather than repeat it.

Last week's peaceful conclusion was also a reminder of how much Indonesia and the rest of the world have changed since Suharto, Asia's longest-serving leader and one of the globe's few remaining strongmen, seized control of the country in 1966.

The last time power changed hands in this sprawling archipelago, thousands of Indonesians lost their lives after a military coup in which Suharto, a little-known general, overthrew the nation's founding father, Sukarno.

Then, the issues were ideological, and the opponent was communism. Last week, the dispute was over who could restore investor confidence and rebuild a shattered economy riddled with corruption and vexed by a reckless banking system.

Suharto's fall also illustrated a generational change in Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation. At times, the aloof, 76-year-old autocrat seemed to see himself as a Javanese king on whom power is mystically bestowed rather than being earned.

This traditional vision was increasingly at odds with a generation of students who organized protests with cell phones and e-mail and were unwilling to sit by as the country unraveled around the aging patriarch.

The rest of the world didn't pay much attention to Indonesia's blood-letting during the mid-1960s, and the army's exact role in it has never been fully explained. Had Suharto ordered a massive crackdown last week, though, he would have had a much harder time getting away with it. CNN and other electronic media would have documented the killings live for tens of millions of viewers around the globe.

A heavily publicized massacre would have only made it more difficult for Suharto to obtain the foreign capital and loans on which the economy's recovery depends.

To resolve the crisis peacefully, the differing sides made concessions -- an encouraging sign of compromise in a country that still faces tremendous economic problems and no consensus over who should lead it.

Suharto, who had tried to postpone his departure, agreed to leave immediately. The army publicly supported Suharto's chosen successor, even though the military is known to have little affection for the man. General Wiranto also pledged to protect Suharto and his family, who have angered Indonesians JTC by amassing a huge fortune through political connections.

And the students, who were the first to call for Suharto's ouster, agreed yesterday to leave the parliamentary complex they had occupied for several days even though their demand that Habibie resign went unmet.

With Suharto out of power, the people of Indonesia must now rebuild their economy and try to resolve competing visions of their future without the benefit of strong, democratic institutions.

Habibie, who has no power base, is emphasizing stability and continuity as he calls for gradual reform of a corrupt and inefficient system. He has not called for elections and might try to finish Suharto's term, which expires in 2003.

Though they might have returned peaceably to their campuses yesterday, the students and opposition leaders consider Habibie an extension of Suharto and -- at best -- a transitional figure. They are demanding that Parliament call a special session to chose a new president as soon as possible.

People on the streets of Jakarta have more basic concerns. Many just want to see the price of food go down and assurances that there won't be any more looting.

"If the food prices go down," said Chairul, 52, who runs a building supply store, "[Habibie] has succeeded with the people.

"If in three months there is no result, then there will be trouble again."

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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