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  •   Riots Rage in Indonesian Capital

    Looters and a burning car/AFP
    Indonesian mobs burn cars and plunder shops in the Chinatown area of Jakarta on Thursday. (AFP)
    By Keith B. Richburg
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Thursday, May 14, 1998; Page A01

    JAKARTA, Indonesia, May 14 – Indonesia's capital erupted in an orgy of rioting and looting today, with young protesters burning hundreds of stores, vehicles and offices across the city, sending panicked residents fleeing for the airport or for safety in downtown hotels. The riots exposed publicly, for the first time, the serious rifts within the Indonesian armed forces.

    The death toll from today's violence was uncertain. Witnesses said the Chinatown section of North Jakarta, particularly hard hit, was devastated. Indonesia's minority ethnic Chinese community has in the past become the target of popular rage because of its economic dominance. Elsewhere in the city, businesses hoping to avoid burning and looting posted signs that said "Pribumi," meaning "native Indonesian."

    Around Jakarta, homes and businesses belonging to long-serving President Suharto's relatives and close associates were singled out to be torched and gutted.

    The violence forced schools and most businesses to close, disrupted transportation and caused delays or cancellations of most flights because of rioting along the main access road to the airport. Tonight, plumes of black smoke could be seen rising from several sections of the city.

    [Suharto arrived in Jakarta early Friday morning after cutting short a trip to Egypt. Guarded by troops and 100 military vehicles, he was driven in a convoy to his central Jakarta residence. Later in the morning, tanks appeared on the streets of the capital.]

    Late today, the U.S. Pacific Command began making plans for an emergency military evacuation of U.S. civilians that could be carried out if the situation further deteriorated and put American citizens at risk, defense officials in the region said. One defense official said no new military forces have been deployed for a possible evacuation but a flotilla of U.S. warships near the coast of Thailand is standing by ready to assist.

    [On Friday, the U.S. Embassy advised the 8,000 Americans living mostly in Jakarta, as well as those in Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, to "depart the country as soon as possible," the Associated Press reported. Major U.S. companies began moving their American employees into hotels for possible evacuation.]

    Today's citywide riots, the worst in the capital in recent memory, seemed to further shake Suharto's regime and add to speculation that his departure from the scene may be imminent. All the top armed forces generals, including the regional commanders, were known to be meeting throughout the day and evening behind a ring of armored vehicles at the Defense Ministry compound here. Well-placed diplomatic and other sources said a decision may already have been made to form a new military crisis coordinating group, with the only key remaining question being which of them would take the lead.

    Suharto was reported to have told an audience in Egypt that if he has lost the people's trust, he would not use force to stay in power. That statement, and the apparent moves by the military tonight to set up a new crisis council, further fueled speculation that Indonesia could be at the brink of a dramatic change in leadership for the first time in 32 years of Suharto's unchallenged, one-man rule. Suharto, 76, was reelected in March to a seventh consecutive five-year term by an assembly he largely handpicked; tonight, analysts said it was possible that same assembly could be recalled in a special session to consider a vote of no confidence in Suharto.

    "You can predict what has to happen," a Western diplomat said. "The most likely endgame is a special session of the [assembly]. . . . But who do you put in who would satisfy the students?"

    Clinton administration officials were said to sense, as one presidential assistant put it, that "elite opinion is starting to jell" against Suharto's government.

    As Gen. Wiranto, the defense minister and armed forces commander, today appeared before the press to apologize for Tuesday's shooting deaths of six unarmed student demonstrators – which sparked today's spasm of violence – his forces appeared deeply divided over how to handle the continuing violence. At least one unit of marines, in scarlet berets and holding swagger sticks, briefly marched alongside the protesters, who responded with cheers and handshakes, and then engaged in a tense standoff at a key intersection with helmeted riot policemen who fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.

    That extraordinary scene played out on the riot-torn Salemba Raya street, a main commercial strip near the center of town, close to the University of Indonesia's medical school. The marines marched with the crowd for about a half mile, their automatic weapons slung casually across their backs, amid chants of "Long live the marines!"

    "We're just making sure there's no violence, no looting, so the people can focus their energies," said a young lieutenant strolling alongside the demonstrators.

    At the intersection of Salemba Raya and Pramuka streets, the marines formed a line between the protesters and the riot policemen. As protesters taunted the police with shouts of "You fat policemen!" and "Is it time for your afternoon nap?," the marines tried to calm the crowd. One marine advised the demonstrators, "You shouldn't stare them in the face – that's what makes them hate you."

    The riot police charged the crowd after nearly an hour of taunting, firing volleys of tear gas and chasing down some protesters and hitting them with rattan canes. Some shoving and shouting broke out between policemen and marines, who tried to protect the protesters. "What are they thinking?" shouted one marine as police fired at demonstrators. "They're not supposed to do that!" Reporters saw marines shouting obscenities at policemen, and in one tense moment, a policeman leveled his automatic weapon a few inches from a marine's chest and threatened to fire, until he was pulled away by colleagues.

    "The marines are on the side of the people, because they are wiser," said Laurent, a university mathematics teacher who came out to watch the protest.

    A young man in a T-shirt said of the marines, "They come with their guns on their backs. The other ones, the police, always stand with their guns ready to shoot. That's why all people hate the police."

    Diplomats said the spectacle of marines appearing to side with the demonstrators and engaging in a public confrontation with police must be sobering for Suharto, who for the first time must question the loyalty of at least one faction of his military.

    The anti-Suharto protests began relatively peacefully in February as student-led demonstrations, largely confined to university campuses, called mainly for general reform of the country's closed political system. But in recent weeks, as the protests have grown and spread across the country, emboldened students have begun marching beyond their campus gates, shifting their demands from reforming the system to insisting that Suharto step down.

    Until last week, the students had drawn sympathy but no active participation from other groups. Then the government imposed hefty increases on the price of fuel and electricity, as mandated by the International Monetary Fund, and that move – coming atop the widespread hardship already felt because of the country's economic collapse – turned simmering public discontent into outright anger at the regime.

    Students today largely stayed on their campuses and did not riot. The people on the streets shouted that their movement marked a new "people power" uprising in Indonesia. In reality, it appeared to be a spasm of destruction and looting.

    "This has nothing to do with politics," a Western diplomat said. "This is rage – 30 years of rage."

    Overall today, the official Antara news agency said police shot and killed two people. The military reported three soldiers killed but provided no details. Other, unconfirmed reports put the day's casualty toll at 20 or more, many of them ethnic Chinese.

    Not all the violence was random, as the rioters particularly targeted businesses associated with Suharto's relatives and cronies. The house of wealthy Chinese businessman Liem Soei Liong, a close Suharto associate, was said to have been burned to the ground. Also torched was an office of the government Social Affairs Department, now headed by Suharto's daughter, Siti Hardijanti Rukmana, known as Tutut.

    On Salemba Raya, the mob attacked a showroom of the Bimantara car company owned by Suharto's son, Bambang Trihatmodjo; rioters ripped open the metal shutters, dragged out office furniture and tires and created a huge bonfire in the middle of the street, then rolled out new Cakra cars and set them ablaze.

    "They're attacking the businesses of the children of the president," said a 24-year-old office clerk who watched the showroom's destruction. "We can't go directly to the headquarters, so we're attacking his branches."

    At the campus of the ABA-ABI university, students stayed behind the gates but used a megaphone to address young people on the streets outside. "Long live the people!" a student leader shouted. "Bring down Suharto!"

    Across the street from the university, a crowd set fire to a small shopping center containing a Dunkin Donuts shop, a book store and a grocery store, and some people went inside to loot.

    Across the city, businesses seemed to side with the protesters today – either out of sympathy for their cause or to avoid being burned and looted.

    Even as military leaders jockeyed for power and searched for a solution, the military also warned that it would crack down on looters. "We must face rioters and looters firmly," Maj. Gen. Syafrie Syamsudin, the Jakarta military commander, said on local television.

    The military has moved about 15,000 troops into the capital to deal with the violence.

    The U.S. Embassy today was among several foreign missions announcing plans for the departure of nonessential people. But a diplomat said the order was largely not in force since it was too difficult to reach the airport and most flights out were fully booked by Indonesians trying to flee.

    Staff writer Dana Priest and special correspondent Cindy Shiner in Jakarta and staff writer Dan Balz in Berlin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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