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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
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.
THE FIRST SPARK
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
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.
THE UNTHINKABLE HAPPENS
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
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
- With reporting by Dewi Loveard/Jakarta
Suharto's wife and most trusted adviser Siti "Tien" Hartinah dies, prompting speculation that he will
not stand for re-election in 1998.
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
Riots convulse Jakarta after the government-supported takeover of Megawati's HQ
The Thai baht is floated, sparking the regional crisis. The rupiah begins to fall and Jakarta widens the
currency's trading band to compensate.
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.
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.
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.
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.