Thursday, May 21, 1998

'Tiananmen threat' halts rally

The Nation

JAKARTA, Thursday 21 May 1998 -- President Suharto was being hemmed in from all sides last night as hundreds of thousands of protesters marched throughout Indonesia demanding he quit immediately and parliamentary leaders gave him until tomorrow to resign.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also joined the chorus yesterday,calling on President Suharto to ''preserve his legacy'' by stepping down and permitting a transition of democracy.

Albright increased the pressure on Suharto, with whom US administrations have had few disputes with during his 32 years in power. Albright said ''now he has an opportunity for an historic act of statesmanship'' by stepping down.

More than 250,000 people marched against the ageing leader in his hometown while political leaders jockeyed for his ouster and the military assumed control of the capital.

Hundreds of thousands of people staged largely peaceful protests in about half a dozen other cities.

A planned massive protest for Suharto's immediate resignation was called off yesterday after an army general threatened another ''Tiananmen Square massacre'' in the capital.

The turning point came at dawn when Muslim leader Amien Rais, who had promised to gather a million people on the streets of Jakarta to force Suharto from power, sounded the retreat. He went on television, looking distinctly shaken, to ask the people to pray instead.

He later said a general had told him the army did not care if Indonesia had its own Tiananmen Square -- a reference to the massacre of hundreds of students in the Chinese capital in 1989 which snuffed out a pro- democracy movement.

''Somebody told me, who happens to be an army general, that he doesn't care at all if ... an accident like Tiananmen will take place today,'' Rais said.

''I was shocked by the army's determination.'' As troops and tanks sealed off central Monas Square -- Jakarta's equivalent of Tiananmen -- Rais said he would join 15,000 students at Parliament with 100,000 of his supporters. He turned up but few of his followers did.

Fearing a possible bloodbath, Rais appealed for protester to remain peaceful and said Suharto's days were numbered. ''Suharto is counting the days,'' hesaid.

Meanwhile, an amphibious US Marine force led by a helicopter carrier was diverted to Indonesia in case a military evacuation of Americans was required.

In Jakarta, more than 60,000 students remained inside the Indonesian parliament building yesterday as parliamentary leaders met with President Suharto and told him he must resign by tomorrow.

Student spokesman Sardini told his peers the leaders of the House of Representatives are to start the preparations for a special session on the People's Consultative Assembly on Monday if Suharto fails to reply tomorrow.

The announcement was greeted by a storm of applause and cheers by the students who are demanding the 77-year-old Suharto immediately resign. They spurned an earlier pledge by Suharto for new elections in which he stated he would not run, as inadequate.

Students from more than 80 colleges and universities around Jakarta began arriving at the parliamentary compound in hundreds of buses and trucks.

Clad in their respective uniforms, the students ignored hour-long heavy midday rains and gathered inside the parliament building. Many of them also climbed the domes on the building and daringly unfurled their banners which read, ''Suharto, the world wants you to go now'', ''Suharto is the market enemy'' and ''Suharto go to hell with your plan. Step down now''.

Hundreds of white-collar workers, including stock brokers, fund managers and young executives surprisingly also joined the protest clad in their suits and ties.

Irsyad Sudiro, the parliamentarian chief of the ruling Golkar party, of which Harmoko is the chairman, said it has five options for resolving the political crisis in Southeast Asia's largest country.

Four of the five choices require Suharto and Vice President B J Habibie to resign and a special meeting of the Assembly, the highest state institution, to be organised. The fifth alternative was to accept Suharto's proposal for fresh elections in which Suharto would not be a candidate.

''We prefer to have the special meeting and suggested it be held on June 8,'' said Irsyad. His statement, although slightly different from the one issued by Harmoko, means Suharto's own party has asked for his resignation.

Many journalists, students and politicians here find it hard to believe such a proposal. Suharto was ''re-elected'' for his seventh five- year term in office on March 11. Now, the same people in this rubber-stamp Parliament are demanding Suharto step down.

Harmoko, a former journalist, is widely known to be a close aide to Suharto who always defended his boss while in office. Harmoko also repeatedly closed down newspapers while a cabinet member in order to please Suharto.

Suharto's last days, however, still depend on the military whose members have a decisive vote within the House. A meeting reportedly took place at military headquarters but the result is not yet known.

If the military faction supports the Golkar proposal, as the two minority parties -- the United Development Party and the Indonesian Democratic Party -- have done, then Suharto really must resign tomorrow. Otherwise, he might choose to use violence against his loyalists-turned- enemies.

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