Thursday, May 20, 1999

Protesters tell Suharto to quit now

The Nation

JAKARTA, 20 May 1998 -- Tens of thousands of students camped outside the Parliament early Wednesday were clearly showing President Suharto that his surprise announcement Tuesday that he would resign after instituting reform measures was not good enough --they want him out immediately.

The crowd of young protesters, estimated Tuesday night as between 50,000 to 70,000, was swelling by the hour as more students from outlying areas poured into the capital to support the push for the President's immediate removal.

The authorities, fearing a new day of nationwide mass demonstrations Wednesday, were Tuesday night deploying extra troops and tanks close to the presidential palace.

In a move which stunned both opponents and supporters, President Suharto said Tuesday he will resign after instituting a series of reform measures, including calling an immediate general election.

Suharto announced his intentions after meeting with nine prominent Muslim figures in the Merdeka Palace earlier in the morning, including Abdurrahman Wahid, chairman of the 30-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama organisation, and Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid.

However, thousands of students occupying Parliament House greeted the nationally-broadcast announcement with derision.

Student protesters siezed control of the public address system in the Parliament compound and allowed speaker after speaker to denounce Suharto. The students and opposition politicians, who have been staging rallies since March, denounced the proposal, saying Suharto must resign as soon as possible.

They vowed to organise massive rallies Wednesday in Jakarta as well as other major cities to keep up the pressure.

The 77-year-old Suharto said he wants to become a pandito, or sage, after retiring from office. "'Being an ordinary citizen doesn't mean less honour than being president as long as we can contribute to the people and the country.''

During his 15-minute media briefing, Suharto described the three-step proposal in front of the nine guests and more than 50 reporters and photographers.

The reforms will start with a Cabinet reshuffle and the establishment up a reform committee, which will include university professors, intelletuals and religious leaders.

The committee is also assigned to reshape the widely-citicised laws regulating general elections, political parties, the House of Representatives and local Parliaments, monopolies and corruption.

''If deemed necessary, the committee is welcomed to draft other bills,'' Suharto said, adding that a general election will be organised shortly after the laws have been passed.

Suharto, who read a prepared text after giving the background to his thoughts, said the new Parliament is to convene and elect a new president and vice president as soon as possible.

''I myself am kapok (tired) of being president. Resignation is not an issue. I'm more than prepared to resign, but will my resignation mean that the problems will be solved? Constitutionally, it should be the vice president who takes over,'' Suharto said.

The president, however, answered his own question and said that Vice President BJ Habibie is likely to face similar problems. ''People will question his position, and it might lead to further turmoil.''

Although Suharto did not mention any time frame, both Nurcholish and legal professor Yusril Ihsa Mahendra, who is Suharto's speech writer and who also attended the meeting, told the media that the Muslim leaders and Suharto had talked about the proposal taking around six months to implement.

After completing the six-month proposal, Suharto said he will step down. ''I hereby declare that I do not want to be renominated as president again.''

Chronicling the meeting, Nucholish said he opened the discussion by telling Suharto that he has to resign as of Tuesday. ''My calculation of the crisis in based in seconds, instead of minutes, which means that the longer he stays the more serious the damage will be.''

But Suharto rejected the suggestion and asked whether his resignation would not spark further problems as people would question Habibie's position.

Wahid said the Suharto proposal is ''very positive'', and called on the students, who plan to organise mass rallies Wednesday, to cancel the demonstrations as they have already received what they want.

Another Muslim figure, Emha Ainun Najib, who last week called on Suharto to step down and even to donate his personal wealth to the state, said the proposal is the ''most moderate'' solution under the current situation.

But two other prominent figures missed the two-hour meeting -- Muslim leader Amien Rais, who is also the chairman of the 25-million strong Muhammadiyah organisation, and nationalist leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, the eldest daughter of the late President Sukarno.

Both are nationally known as outspoken critics of the government and openly challenged Suharto's re-nomination and re-election in March.

At a separate conference Tuesday, Amien, who was accompanied by Madjid, deplored the proposal and said Suharto must step down first and leave Vice President Habibie to organise the election. ''The offer lacks details. I have reached the conclusion that the reform movement would go on and on and on.''

He said the Suharto proposal is a ''cheap game to fool his own people'', calling it ''disappointing'' and showing that the aging leader is ''unrealistic...full of illusions and hallucinations''.

''Tomorrow the people will hammer the same issue -- there is no other issue but that he must step down,'' Amien Rais said.

''There is no question about tomorrow. There will be huge crowds from every walk of life, and I will join them,'' he said.

His statement was obvioulsy addressed at the thousands of students and activists nationwide to encourage them continue with their planned million-strong street rally. Amien himself will lead the rally from Parliament to the Merdeka Palace.

The students set up a bigger banner which read ''Suharto and Habibie step down now''. Clad in the colourful jackets of their respective campuses, the students vowed to continue to occupy the Parliament building until the rubber-stamp Parliament holds another convention to hold Suharto accountable.

The students held free speech forums inside and outside the building, denouncing both Suharto and Habibie. Dozens scaled the building's green dome and raised their banners.

The Parliament compound has turned into a huge bazaar with food vendors opening stalls selling everything from soft drinks to fried rice.

It is talked widely here that engineer-turn-politician Habibie is not a capable politican. He is known as a big spender, with pet projects including aircraft and ship building indutries contributing heavily to Indonesia's debts.

In a related development, House Speaker Harmoko, whose office has also been occupied by the students, held a long meeting with other factions and his four deputies. At the end of the day, Harmoko read a written statement which said that the House is to support the ''acceleration of reforms''.

According to Harmoko, a former Cabinet member and the chairman of Suharto's Golkar ruling party, the Parliament supports the principle of ''constitutional presidential succession''.

But he declined to elaborate, denying that it was a reversal of his Monday statement calling on Suharto to step down. However, Tuesday's statement obviously contradicted his initial one.

Political developments moved very fast in Jakarta nowadays. Harmoko apparently altered his opinion after military commander Gen Wiranto openly opposed calls for Suharto's resignation.

Many journalists, politicians and diplomats here believe that the armed forces is now heavily split between the more moderate camp, headed by Wiranto, and the hardliner Lt Gen Prabowo Subianto, who commands the Army's strategic and reserve command.

The speculation is that Wiranto is trying to slow the parliamentarian and student's agendas in a bid to engage the Prabowo camp. Fast reforms might put the two camps on a collision course and even result in civil war.

Javanese linguist Farida Soemargono-Labrousse of the Paris- based Institute for Studies on Oriental Languages and Civilisation, said that in the Javanese context a person who is to become a sage does not publicly state his intention to become one.

''Most importantly, a would-be sage is not someone who is morally corrupt and materially rich,'' said Soemargono-Labrousse, adding that Suharto had obviously manipulated the meaning of the Javanese pandito.

Foreign embassies in Jakarta have issued circulairs asking their citizens not to go to Jakarta's main protest area Wednesday, fearing that the protests might turn violent, as happened last week when rioters razes many parts of the capital.

The killings inflamed the protests and prompted students to occupy the Parliament building.

As if trying to meet the students' challenge, Suharto's three most loyal generals -- Lt Gen Prabowo Subianto, who is also Suharto's son-in- law, Jakarta military commander Major Gen Sjafrie Sjamsuddin and elite Kopassus commander Maj Gen Muchdie -- gathered their soldiers Tuesday in Senayan Stadium, only a kilometre from the building.

Sjamsuddin even made a show of force, circling more than a dozen tanks around the occupied Parliament building.

The two-star general also stirred up his men with nationalistic speeches, asking them to follow his orders in a bid to ''save our people and our country''.

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