Thursday, March 12, 1998

Protesters mark Suharto 're-election'

The Nation 

JAKARTA -- A few hours after being sworn-in to his seventh five-year term in office, Indonesian President Suharto, Asia's longest-serving ruler, held a thanksgiving party and gave a rare unexpected interview with state-owned TVRI television. 

Suharto, who has never conducted a press conference or allowed reporters to interview him since the 1970s, stopped and talked for a while with two TVRI reporters in front of his spacious house on Cendana street in the posh Menteng area of Jakarta yesterday. 

''I would like to express my gratitude to the Almighty One and to the people of Indonesia, who had trust in me, through their representatives at the People's Consultative Assembly, to lead the nation once again,'' the 77- year-old leader said. 

''This is a very heavy duty, especially that we are now having various crises but I believe that the Indonesian people will not leave me struggling alone. I believe that they will support me to overcome the crisis,'' he chuckled.

He called on the people to start doing their ''topo broto'' -- a Javanese idiom which translates as doing something ascetic such as fasting or working hard in order to fulfil a wish. The idiom can also mean to live with concern. 

Not all Indonesians share his idea. Students and intellectuals reacted angrily with his carefully-scripted re-election, saying the Assembly is nothing but a rubber-stamp institution whose members were mostly hand- picked by Suharto himself. 

They held protests in their campuses nationwide, from Jakarta to Yogyakarta to Bandung, the hotbeds of student movements, and even in smaller cities like Padang and Lampung on the west coast of Sumatra. 

''Down with Suharto, down with Suharto,'' cheered students at the prestigious Indonesia University in Jakarta. 

''Our pattern is going up and up. The other day we had only hundreds. We moved again and had thousands. Today we will mobilise 10,000 students,'' said student leader Amril Chaniago.  

The 1,000-strong assembly also officially elected a close aide to Suharto, the 61-year-old BJ Habibie, Indonesia's technology tsar, as the new vice-president, replacing the outgoing Try Sutrisno. 

Critics here and abroad frequently said the carefully-scripted presidential and vice-presidential elections are merely to show the outside world that Indonesia has a legal and democratic mechanism to run the country. 

In fact, Suharto has the legal power to appoint around 80 per cent of the assembly members and has installed most of his sons, daughters and cousins, as well as close aides. 

Habibie is also his hand-picked deputy. Assembly Speaker Harmoko, another Suharto associate and the chairman of Suharto's Golkar party, led the swearing-in ceremonies himself for both Suharto and Habibie.

Many believe yesterday's ceremony is likely to mark Suharto's last election. 

Indonesia is on the brink of a serious economic collapse as its currency has lost almost 75 percent of its value to the American dollar. 

The International Monetary Fund last week decided to delay the disbursement of its US$43 billion package to bail out the ailing economy. 

On the Indonesian Christian University campus in Jakarta, around 100 students put on a play with students clad in mummy-like dresses. Each wore a letter which read ''Demokrasi'' as if trying to send a message that democracy is dead in the country. 

Although in his swearing-in speech, Suharto rhetorically pledged that he would like to seek support as well as criticism from the public, whether it is delivered politely or bluntly, the Jakarta police, did their business as usual. 

A human rights worker told The Nation yesterday that the police had officially charged nine activists with the notorious subversion law whose maximum penalty is death. The nine, who include Indonesian film director Ratna Sarumpaet, tried on Tuesday to hold a meeting in a Jakarta restaurant but only managed to talk for five minutes before officers raided the place and took them away. 

Sarumpaet is the coordinator of a loosely-organised alliance between opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri and Muslim figure Amien Rais, established earlier this year to challenge the re-election of Suharto. 

In Yogyakarta, around 17,000 students staged a four-hour protest, shouting anti-Suharto slogans and parading around the huge campus of Gajah Mada University in the heart of the city, which is around 500 kilometres east of Jakarta. 

Amien Rais and noted lecturer Teuku Jakob joined the protest and delivered their speeches. Amien, who has openly stated that he is prepared to run for the presidency, said he will give Suharto six months to overcome the crisis. He said Suharto had gained a fortune of around $40 billion while in power since 1965. 

''It's not something special if he uses his own money to bail out the Indonesian ailing economy,'' thundered Amien. 

Students also burned a huge picture of Suharto. Most of them wore the red-and-white headband, the colours of Indonesia's flag. ''Decrease prices and down with Suharto,'' they repeatedly chanted. Some students also painted their faces and held street plays, depicting corrupt officials who dragged their country into suffering.

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