Friday, May 22, 1998

Balance of power up in air in Indonesia

The Nation

JAKARTA, Friday 22 May 1998 -- Military miscalculation in handling an aborted student rally apparently helped end the rule of former president Suharto and changed the political balance inside the Indonesian armed forces.

It is an open secret here that the military is divided into two major camps. The first camp is headed by armed forces commander Gen Wiranto, who refused to use force against the students.

The second camp is headed by Lt Gen Prabowo Subianto, Suharto's son-in- law who heads the army's strategic and reserve command, who did not hesitate to mobilise tanks, barbed wire and soldiers with automatic rifles to set up blockades on Jakarta's major roads on Wednesday. He is close to Jakarta military commander Maj Gen Sjafrie Sjamsuddin.

The second camp apparently had the upper hand on both Tuesday and Wednesday. Both Sjafrie and Prabowo were shown on television rallying their men into the fighting spirit. They decided to crack down on the students who had vowed to organise a march of one million on Wednesday.

Wiranto disappeared from public view and opposition leader Amien Rais simply cancelled the Wednesday morning march and gathered hundreds of thousands of students into the parliamentary compound.

Another miscalculation took place in Yogyakarta. More than one million protesters marched down the main streets of Yogyakarta, about 500 kilometres east of Jakarta, demanding Suharto's resignation. No significant military presence was seen in the area.

Apparently the protests, both at parliament and Yogyakarta helped parliament members decide they should force Suharto to step down. Suharto stepped down yesterday.

Coincidentally, Prabowo and Sjafrie then disappeared from public view. Wiranto consolidated his power and yesterday announced the military would support Suharto's resignation.

Military spokesman Wahab Mokodongan said Amien's decision to cancel the Wednesday march was ''wise and significant''. Prabowo's miscalculation resulted in his father-in-law losing his job.

The balance of power has not been decided yet. Prabowo probably advised Suharto to chose Habibie as the successor in order to provide Prabowo with a weaker president to deal with rather than having to deal with Minister of Defence Wiranto, Home Affairs Minister R Hartono and Foreign Minister Ali Alatas.

Under Indonesian law, if both president and vice president resign, power is transferred to a troika of the three ministers.

Suharto, therefore, opted not to ask Habibie to step down in order to preserve a more advantageous position for his son-in-law. The battle is not over yet.

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