Violence Shatters a Ruler's Image
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 14, 1998; Page A01
JAKARTA, Indonesia, May 13Only two months ago, Indonesian President Suharto's grip on power seemed secure. He was unanimously reelected to a seventh five-year term by an assembly he largely handpicked. Although the country's economy was a shambles, his support from the military remained unwavering. And his growing number of vocal critics could offer no viable alternative to his rule.
But with a single dramatic incident that can be seen as a turning point, that perception has been shattered by the sound of automatic-weapons fire crackling from a pedestrian footbridge, and by the desperate cries of relatives and friends wailing over the bodies of young slain students.
That flash of violence Tuesday outside one of Jakarta's elite universities -- a sharp escalation after three months of student-led protests and the first such incident of bloodshed in the capital -- has reshaped the political calculus and forced a rethinking of some previously held assumptions.
Perhaps most important for many, it has brought into question the legitimacy of Suharto's rule. Asia's longest-serving leader, a man once credited with steering his country through three decades of relative stability and economic growth, is now increasingly seen by his own people as another in a long line of aging autocrats -- the Philippines' Ferdinand E. Marcos, Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko -- whose troops must shoot unarmed citizens to keep him installed in the presidential palace.
Journalists, academics, opposition politicians and diplomats who monitor events here no longer say it's a question of whether Suharto will leave office; now they say it's a question of when, and how. Before, they talked of Suharto remaining in power for years. Now they talk in terms of months.
"I think the threshold of tolerance has been broken," said Laksamana Sukardi, a business consultant and economics adviser to opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri. "Suharto before had some legitimacy, because of the economic performance before [the crisis]. But now, it's no more.
"The final curtain will drop soon," he said. "I can't see any way he can survive the economic turbulence, and now it is compounded by this political turbulence and demands that he step down." He added, "There's no point of return anymore."
The change in sentiment can be seen simply in the new openness in discussing Suharto's departure from the scene -- a topic that not too long ago would have been considered an insult grave enough to warrant a lengthy jail term. Just today, the English-language Jakarta Post carried yet another front-page commentary, this time by Marsilam Simanjuntak, a founder of the Forum for Democracy, saying, "Suharto has to step down first, by whatever means acceptable." He also was quoted as saying he saw indications that "the power balance is now in favor of the demonstrating students."
The political crisis has all but eclipsed the economic one, although each feeds on the other. The current wave of protest for political reform gained momentum with last week's government decision to impose hefty price increases on fuel and electricity. This week's political turmoil took a heavy toll on the already-battered local currency, with the rupiah today plunging past the 10,000 mark to more than 11,000 for one U.S. dollar.
"Everybody's coming to the conclusion that this political strife situation is becoming such a problem that the economic problems, which are horrendous, are really on the back burner," said another diplomat.
Among other things, some diplomats and economists here predict the $43 billion economic bailout by the International Monetary Fund may be in jeopardy, as Suharto's continued stay in office increasingly appears to be part of the problem in Indonesia, and not the solution.
Rather than feeling elation, however, many government critics feel Indonesia is entering an increasingly dangerous period as the country prepares for a wrenching succession. Although convinced that a change at the top is imminent, many here fear there may first be a period of increased repression. There are also deep concerns that a long-rumored rift in the top ranks of the military could be widening -- and could even be behind the current unrest.
Under one scenario widely discussed, Suharto -- who is returning home Thursday, a day early, from a trip to Cairo -- could be preparing to impose martial law or invoke emergency powers. That might allow him to order the campuses closed down and the students sent home to keep the disturbances from spreading. But such a dramatic course would carry "a potentially high cost, both domestically . . . and from the international angle," a Western diplomat said.
Domestically, imposing martial law might severely test the ability of the 400,000-member armed forces to maintain order in this vast archipelago; many believe the force, relatively small for the population, would be badly stretched if forced to deal with simultaneous large outbreaks in several cities. And internationally, at a time when Indonesia needs foreign help to deal with the economic crisis, a martial-law crackdown "could be seen as further detracting from the legitimacy of the regime."
Another scenario involves a faction of the military fomenting chaos -- either to see Suharto replaced or to create a pretext to justify martial law. For example, many people following events of the last two days have asked why -- when the troops in Jakarta were ordered to use only rubber bullets and water hoses -- troops were stationed on the footbridge above Trisakti University with live ammunition. "It was a very skillful sniper who shot at the students," said Laksamana, the economics adviser.
Those who believe in a military split also question whether some segment of the armed forces is behind the current wave of kidnappings and "disappearances" of anti-government activists, even as the armed forces chief, Gen. Wiranto, has insisted that his troops have nothing to do with the abductions.
"The official military commander has said this is against his orders," Laksamana said. "So one can interpret this to mean there is a group within the military that is trying to disgrace him -- maybe somebody who is after his job. . . . They could [also] use hired thugs and criminals to burn down the shops of Chinese."
"Whatever it is," Laksamana said, "it is becoming uncontrollable and out of hand."
The common thinking here has always been that when the situation became chaotic enough, the top armed forces generals would go to Suharto and quietly tell him that the time had come for him to step aside. But that assumes there would be unity on who should replace him -- and the main rivalry for the position would be between Wiranto, who also is defense minister, and Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, Suharto's son-in-law, who heads the 27,000-man Army Strategic Reserve Command.
Amid the jockeying and speculation about the post-Suharto era, largely lost have been the voices of the political opposition -- particularly Megawati, who had been generally invisible until her trip to Trisakti today. Only Amien Rais, a Muslim leader and academic, has maintained a high profile, and has not relented in his verbal attacks on Suharto.
While a popular consensus has formed around the students' demands for "total political reform," few here have anything more than a vague idea what form any new political order should take. There is a general agreement on the need for change -- but no specific answer to the question: Change to what?
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