The Nation, December 15, 1997
The main streets in Jakarta’s business district were crowded on Friday. Amid the skyscrapers, Jakarta rushed home for the weekend, and everything seemed normal.
But it was an unusual Friday. A few hours earlier, Indonesian Cabinet Secretary Moerdiono made an announcement that some had anticipated and many had feared that president Suharto had cancelled his trip to Kuala Lumpur due to what Moerdiono characterized as fatigue, but many believe it was something much are more troubling.
“I announced a few days ago that the President was planning to attend the Asean informal summit. However, after a routine checkup, the presidential doctors advised him not to go to any long journey for the time being,” Moerdiono said.
Just minutes after the announcement, the Indonesian rupiah and the stock market plunged to new uncharted lows, forcing the rupiah to break the critical 5.00 barrier to a new record of 5,225 against the dollar in the spot market.
It is widely understood that Suharto presence at the Kuala Lumpur summit would have lent the Asean’s meeting special significance, as he is the only founding leader remaining in power since the regional grouping was established in Bangkok in 1969.
Rumors, however, began to circulate widely that the 76-year-old Suharto to had suffered a minor stroke after concluding a 12 days trip to Namibia South Africa, Canada and South Arabia earlier this month. The ageing president was even rumored to have died on Dec 5, pushing the rupiah through the 4,000 psychological barrier end up losing more than 50 per cent of its initial value of 2.500 in July.
In a apparent bid to confront the rumors, state-owned television TVRI showed Suharto meeting Moerdiono and Foreign Minister Ali Alatas in Suharto’s private residence on Friday, during which the pale looking and puffy eyed Suharto, clad in a dark yellow batik shirt, was shown sitting on a sofa. Other than smiling and nodding a number of times, Suharto did not make may gestures.
The footage, instead of calming the rumours, raised more speculation. Some said Suharto had to be helped to sit on the sofa. Others said he could move his left hand. The event has obviously shocked most Indonesians, especially those born under Suharto’s role, who are discouraged from even thinking that Indonesia may need a younger president to replace Suharto.
Australia-based Indonesian specialist Hal Hill said it is also an event that showed Suharto is old and tired. Since he took power in 1965, Suharto has built an arrogant and corrupt bureaucracy and a powerful military unaccustomed to listening to the masses.
It survived because it brought an economic boom. People could buy food and have better clothes. Economic development is frequently used as a pretext to silence the media, to harass the opposition, to crack down on unions and to jail dissidents.
“Suharto is over. It’s only a matter of time,” predicted Rahman Tolleng, an Indonesian activist of the Democracy Forum. He explained that the monetary crisis had prompted the birth of a still-embryonic political crisis with three features.
First, he said, its is the fragmentation of the highly centralized political power of the regime. Suharto is not as strong as he was, resulting in his own supporters fighting with one another.
Second, Tolleng said, the bureaucracy is unable to reach for whatever grassroots support Suharto might have. Third, a mass political movement is likely to emerge when people start to realize that there is a chance to replace Suharto and his cronies.
Tolleng, who is widely known to be pessimist and was once part of Suharto’s Golkar ruling party, suddenly appeared at elite gatherings, saying that the end of the Suharto era is only “a matter of weeks” away.
Many believed that the political tension is likely to heat up between January and March. At the end of January, most Indonesian Muslims are expected to celebrate the end of the Ramadan fasting month when people usually come home, buy more food and wear new clothes. Workers expect their employers to give their annual bonuses, as food prices soar. But the question remains whether employers have money to pay.
And next March, the Indonesian People’s Consultative Assembly is due to elect a new president and vice president. Suharto is expected to retain his position, the seventh five-year presidential term, unopposed and tradition dictates that the vice-presidential candidate is handpicked by him.
But Suharto’s health has made the number two position a hot seat. Under the Indonesian constitution, the vice president should take over if the president has to step down while in office.
Suharto’s aides, like Minister of Research and Technology B J Habibie, Minister of Information R. Hartono, army chief Gen Wiranto as well as Vice President Try Sutrisno, are all likely to be involved in a race for power, along with their respective allies if Suharto’s health continues to fail.
Other players, like former vice president Sudharmono or dark horses like National Planning Minister Ginanjar Kartasasmita and House Speaker Harmoko, as well as Suharto’s eldest daughter, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, are all likely to be involved in the bid for power.
As if knowing that the March election might create a staging ground for political unrest, Indonesian military commander Gen Feisal Tanjung issued a peremptory warning to those who sought to disrupt the plenary by “excessive interruptions, walking out of meetings or taking votes.”
Tanjung said the armed forces is prepared to take action against “those people”, although analysts here doubt whether Tanjung can still control his generals and other younger officers who are now apparently seeking new sponsors in the absence of a common platform of support for Suharto.
“Suharto has no vision” said Rahman Tolleng, “He does not even know what he should do with the monetary crisis. Even the World Bank is not happy with the way Suharto resisted the recovery measures.”
Perhaps as they sat trapped in the Jakarta’s traffic last Friday evening, motorists were already beginning to think, “How serious is his illness? What will happen if the old man dies?”
Or, they might ask themselves, as novelist Mochtar Lubis did in his book Twilight in Jakarta, which is about the final days of the late President Sukarno in the mid-1960s, “Is Indonesia seeing another twilight?”