Seven Days in May That Toppled a Titan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 24, 1998; Page A01
JAKARTA, Indonesia, May 23Nurcholish Madjid, an unassuming Muslim scholar, was worried. He had received the urgent phone call just two hours earlier -- "the president wants to see you" -- and he was now being ushered into a private meeting with Indonesian President Suharto. It was Monday, May 18, at 9 p.m.
If Madjid was jittery, it was because his view was already well known. He had publicly called on Suharto to institute a process of democratization and to announce that he would step down from the post he had held for 32 years.
But Madjid was surprised. Rather than steely resistance, he found Suharto in a relaxed, even jocular mood, as if a weight had just been lifted. "I'm fed up with being president," he recalls Suharto telling him. And so Madjid summoned his own courage. "You should resign," he told him.
"I'm not going to argue with that," Suharto replied. "I'm very willing. But is there any guarantee this trouble will stop?"
The next morning, Tuesday, May 19, Suharto announced the compromise plan that he thought would end weeks of rioting and demonstrations: He would set up a new "reform council," hold elections for a new parliament "as soon as possible" and then step down once that parliament chose a new president and vice president. But it was too late for compromises. Two days later, May 21, Suharto was forced to hold another news conference in the same room at the ornate Merdeka Palace, this time announcing that he was resigning immediately, and that Vice President B.J. Habibie was assuming the presidency.
The speed of Suharto's demise was breathtaking, even to those who had long advocated that he quit. In the end, Indonesia confounded the world by managing a largely peaceful presidential transition, avoiding the violent cataclysm that accompanied the only other such transfer of power in 1966 -- and that many here feared could happen again.
But behind the scenes, that transfer of power was shaped by a variety of key figures around Suharto who acted out their own personal rivalries and ambitions over seven dramatic days, once it became clear that the president would be forced from power. It is a tale of back-room palace intrigue, a story of maneuvering, betrayal, dealmaking and deceit.
The details are just starting to emerge about the seven days in May that toppled Asia's longest-serving leader. But from interviews with a variety of sources, it is possible to piece together a broad overview of the dramatic chain of events.
The seven days began just before dawn on Friday, May 15, when Suharto's Garuda Indonesian MD-11 ER jet touched down at Halim Perdanakusuma Airport, after a 10-hour flight from Cairo. Suharto was returning to a country, and a capital, in chaos. An orgy of rioting and looting the day before had left much of the city in flames, and hundreds of charred bodies were being pulled out of the wreckage of burned-out shopping centers. Foreigners, as well as ethnic Chinese Indonesians, were fleeing the country by the thousands, or holing up for safety in downtown hotels. And the demands for political reform, and Suharto's resignation, were growing louder.
Suharto's first public reaction, relayed to the press by his information minister, was to get tough. He ordered that "stern measures be taken against any criminal activities." Suharto was back and in control and there were warnings that martial law could be imposed, or emergency powers invoked.
Suharto could always count on the support of loyal armed forces. But there were signs that the top military commanders were starting to lean toward the reform camp.
Gen. Wiranto, who was appointed armed forces commander in March, had in early May announced with little fanfare that he was setting up a special military committee, led by his trusted aide, Lt. Gen. Susilo "Bambang" Yudhoyono, to study the issue of political reform and talk with reform advocates to draft a plan for how to overhaul Indonesia's closed political system. But Yudhoyono's committee already was meeting quietly with academics, scholars and others who were submitting papers and "talking points" on reform.
Indria Samego, a political scientist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, submitted proposals to Yudhoyono's group. He was asked to appear, coincidentally, the morning that the rioting erupted in Jakarta. Samego saw the crowds gathering as he drove in from his home in East Jakarta.
Samego said he submitted a paper calling for parliamentary elections to be held as planned in 2002, but suggesting that the process be opened well before then, abolishing the appointed seats in the parliament and allowing all political parties to organize freely and campaign. He said he found support from Yudhoyono for this "step-by-step approach."
Madjid, the scholar, also went to see Yudhoyono and submitted his own, slightly different plan for reform. Madjid said elections should be held by 2000, that political parties should be allowed to operate freely before then and that Suharto should say clearly that he would resign once the reforms were in place. Madjid added another condition -- that Suharto and his family "should surrender their personal wealth to the state."
Madjid said later that to his surprise, the military men did not reject his proposal. Rather, he said, they asked him to soften the tone, remove the reference to Suharto having to return his wealth and omit the exact timetable for an election date.
At the same time, another dynamic was underway. While in Cairo, Suharto was quoted as telling Indonesians living in Egypt that if the people no longer trusted him, "it would not be a problem" for him, and that he would become a pandito, or sage, and get closer to God. His ministers scrambled to deny press reports that Suharto had offered to resign.
But their clarification carried a blatant opening for Suharto's critics.
Ali Alatas, the urbane foreign minister, said Suharto "would not oppose" his removal "as long as it is done constitutionally . . . through our elected representatives in the consultative assembly."
Alatas's comment was meant to be a denial that Suharto had offered to resign, but it was taken as an open invitation for members of parliament to initiate a constitutional process to remove the president.
Haji Harmoko, who is concurrently speaker of the parliament and the constituent assembly that elects the president, had never been known as anything but a loyal Suharto man. But by Saturday, May 16, Harmoko was feeling the heat. His Golkar party was starting to show defections, with some of the minor factions, such as a veterans' group called Kosgoro, openly calling for Suharto to step down. So when Harmoko was asked by reporters to comment on Suharto's Cairo statements, he replied only that he would be visiting Suharto that day to discuss the remarks.
Harmoko met Suharto on May 16, accompanied by other parliamentary faction leaders -- including Syarwan Hamid, head of the armed forces faction -- at the president's private house in the Cendana district. According to Samego, who was in contact with some members of that delegation, they went there to tell Suharto that he was losing support and should resign. But as Samego said, they did it in a very "Javanese way," talking around the topic, never saying it outright.
"They tried to express it in a very collegial manner with Suharto," Samego said. "But they were not quite brave enough to tell him their intention." Harmoko came out of that meeting and told reporters only that Suharto had agreed with the need for reform and would "reshuffle his cabinet."
On Monday, May 18, events were moving quickly and on several fronts. Madjid had a 3 p.m. meeting with a little-known bureaucrat who held a powerful position -- Saadilah Mursjid. Mursjid had the cumbersome title of minister-state secretary. It meant he had close access to Suharto.
Madjid passed him a copy of his revised, toned-down paper on political reform, including the call for elections, and a flat statement by Suharto that he would step down. The state secretary read the document, they discussed it, and then Mursjid said: "Please pray to give me the strength to say this to the president."
Madjid was home later, at 7 p.m., when Mursjid telephoned and told him to come back for the meeting with Suharto at his Cendana residence.
Madjid was well aware of the president's superstitions, his belief in Javanese mysticism. He asked Suharto, "Don't you hold to the myth of March?" and then suggested March 1999 as the date when he could relinquish power. "No, no, no," Suharto replied, saying that "any month" would do. Madjid suggested a six-month transition but Suharto was noncommittal, saying he had to consult others.
But Madjid's cautious proposals for gradual change were rapidly being swept away by forces on the street demanding more radical, immediate action. As Madjid and Mursjid met and asked for strength, several thousand students converged at the parliament gates, demanding to be let in. Eventually, the outnumbered soldiers relented, opened the gates, and allowed in a procession of chanting, flag-waving students who marched to speaker Harmoko's third-floor office.
Harmoko finally emerged, surrounded by the other parliamentary faction leaders, to read the message that he had apparently failed to deliver to Suharto two days earlier. "In response to this situation, the House's leaders . . . hope that the president will act wisely and with wisdom, and step down for the sake of the unity and integrity of the nation," Harmoko said. The students in the room burst into wild applause.
Suharto's resignation would mean that under the constitution, Vice President Habibie would take power. Habibie was lobbying Harmoko and others hard to support this course. Even while Habibie publicly maintained his loyal silence, on Monday his aides were leaking stories to the media outlining the conditions Suharto had set for leaving, and sending out word that the resignation announcement was expected the following morning, Tuesday, May 19.
But the resignation option put Gen. Wiranto in a bind. He recognized the growing forces for change that were enveloping the country -- the students, the intellectuals and Amien Rais, the increasingly outspoken Muslim leader who was threatening to bring millions of his followers into the streets. But Wiranto had reason to distrust Habibie. The vice president had never served in the military, and had, in the military's view, misused his position as Indonesia's high-technology czar to interfere with the armed forces' procurement process, forcing the military to buy components from his factories.
To Wiranto, the "compromise plan" being floated -- Suharto resigning after new elections -- seemed better than the president's immediate resignation. It would get Suharto out of power, gradually, and deny the job to Habibie.
But Wiranto was apparently caught off-guard by Harmoko's and Habibie's maneuverings. Several analysts said Harmoko and Habibie were, in effect, trying to stage a quiet coup -- and may have secured the backing of Wiranto's chief rival, Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, head of the army's strategic command and Suharto's son-in-law. That would leave Wiranto's future in doubt.
So Wiranto acted preemptively, in effect staging his own "counter-coup." He went to see Suharto to pledge his backing for the first plan in motion, the gradual reform plan, and then called a news conference that evening to tell reporters that Harmoko's resignation call had "no legal basis." The best move toward reform, Wiranto said, was to let Suharto get on with his cabinet reshuffle.
While Wiranto spoke, sources said, more troops were moving into the capital. They were coming, according to the sources, to counterbalance Prabowo's troops already in Jakarta. There was in effect a military standoff -- and Wiranto won.
On Tuesday, May 19, Suharto went before a national television audience. Many -- apparently including even Habibie -- had expected him to announce his resignation. Instead, Suharto laid out his plan for gradual reform, including new elections that might take months to arrange. And in a backhanded slap at his vice president, Suharto said that if he resigned abruptly, Habibie would take over, and "would this solve the problem? There'll be more protests for him to resign, and this will go on and on."
Habibie's advisers were angry and felt betrayed. According to a knowledgeable source, Habibie went to see Suharto, pleading that he should be given the chance to rule, and arguing forcefully that only Habibie had stayed loyal while others, like Harmoko, had abandoned the president.
Other forces were at work to Habibie's advantage. Rather than being viewed as a compromise, the Suharto plan was greeted as a cynical ploy to cling to power. The students denounced it. Muslim opposition leader Rais promised to lead demonstrations until Suharto left.
At parliament, Harmoko counted heads. After making sure he had lined up the necessary support, he announced that he would begin a formal proceeding to end the Suharto presidency. Harmoko even gave Suharto a humiliating ultimatum: resign by Friday or face impeachment.
In private, Suharto faced another rebuff. Before his speech, he had assembled nine respected Muslim scholars and intellectuals, asking each to join the "reform council" he was setting up to implement his planned political changes. All of them turned down the offer.
With the public rejecting his reform plan, and parliament formally beginning the steps that could lead to his impeachment, Suharto was in a corner. And thus began an extraordinary procession of visitors to his Cendana home, all with one purpose: to convince him that his presidency was over.
Among the most influential visitors were two of the country's former vice presidents, both respected former generals. One was Sudharmono, vice president from 1988 to 1993, and once one of Suharto's most trusted aides. Also there was Try Sutrisno, the most recent vice president, who held the post until March.
At one point during the evening, cabinet minister Ginandjar Kartasamita came by, and he and at least 10 other ministers handed in their resignations, saying they would no longer serve.
Abdurrachman Wahid later spoke to Suharto's daughter, Siti Harjanti Rukmana, known as Tutut, and asked her who finally had convinced Suharto to quit. "It was total," he said later in an interview, relating what she had told him. It was the cumulative effect of all the meetings that evening, with everyone delivering the same message -- that without the support of parliament, he could be removed from office. Resigning was the more honorable, graceful way to go.
Wiranto by Wednesday had enough troops in Jakarta to control the course of events, but he was running out of options if he still wanted to have a succession that would win international credibility. So, sources said, Wiranto agreed to back Habibie -- but only if Wiranto kept command of the armed forces and the defense minister's job.
Wiranto kept both jobs. The day after Habibie was sworn in, Wiranto fired his chief military rival, Prabowo, consolidating his hold over the armed forces. Then he sent soldiers to remove the students still occupying parliament in an attempt to force more radical change.
The consolidation of a new regime had begun.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company