ad info

 web features
 magazine archive
 customer service
  east asia
  southeast asia
  south asia
  central asia

Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Riots in Jakarta and a host of other challenges raise the question:
Can the aging president handle the pressure?

By Susan Berfield and Keith Loveard / Jakarta

FOR 30 YEARS, PRESIDENT Suharto has reigned over Indonesia in the manner of a Javanese king -- sure-handed, unchallenged, all-powerful. To many of the country's nearly 200 million people, only a divine mandate can confer such longevity and authority. But in recent months, murmurings in the towns and villages of central Java, the nation's mystic heartland, have bordered on heresy. The whisperers say that the wahyu -- the gift of power -- has left the 75-year-old ex-general, and is seeking a home in someone new.

Superstition? Yes. Nonsense? Maybe. The riots that shook Jakarta last week cost three lives by official count (the toll is probably higher), injured hundreds and caused millions of dollars of damage. But the trouble also raised soul-searching questions about the future of Asia's longest-serving head of government and that of his vast land.

The street violence was just one manifestation of growing restlessness on a broad range of fronts. There is increasing concern over the president's health -- especially after the sudden death in April of his wife, his most trusted confidante, and his recent trip to Germany for a check-up. The succession is uncertain. Suharto's current term runs out in 1998. He may put himself up for president again, but if he does not, there are no clear candidates to follow him. Rifts are evident in the military, the main pillar of power in the country. Activist groups are sprouting, and testing the might of the regime as never before. Resentment over corruption and the business empires of Suharto's relatives and cronies -- many of whom are ethnic Chinese -- seems wider. Demands for greater political freedom are stronger. A mood of defiance is in the air. Says Arbi Sanit, a University of Indonesia lecturer in political science: "The temperature is rising."

Can Suharto, a master manipulator of people and events for so long, face down these many fresh challenges? Not as easily as before, if the way the authorities tackled Jakarta's worst street violence in more than a decade is anything to go by. The turmoil began early Saturday, July 27. For a month, scores of supporters of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the ousted rebel leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI by its local initials), had holed up at the group's headquarters in the leafy suburb of Menteng, about 3 km west of the commercial center. That morning, two truckloads of young, tough-looking men claiming to back the officially sanctioned rival faction converged on the single-story structure. They first hurled rocks and petrol bombs, then stormed the building. What happened inside is unclear, but some of the injured taken away by ambulance "were so smashed up," said an eyewitness, "they didn't look like people anymore."

With facts scarce, rumors quickly spread that mass murder had been committed inside the PDI headquarters. A crowd of about 5,000 built up at a major intersection nearby. Riot police and troops armed with water cannon, tear gas and rattan canes blocked their way.

The authorities stood firm under a hail of abuse and rocks. After more than four hours, they charged. The crowd, viciously beaten back, rushed into neighboring roads, torching buildings and vehicles, trashing street-level offices and looting. "The military are dogs," the protestors chanted, "the military are killers." The unrest eased the next day, and by Monday most of Jakarta was back to work. But the capital was tense and bomb threats forced the evacuation of several buildings.

Megawati, shocked by the violence, kept her head low. But she surfaced briefly to blast the government for indirectly sparking the riots because officials had openly supported her enemies. "The takeover of the headquarters was a misuse of power," she said. Added one of her allies, Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid: "The crowd's reaction should be a big lesson to [the authorities] to listen to the voices of the people." But the government was in no mood yet to compromise. It blamed left-leaning activists for inciting the riots. And, possibly to head off any trouble on Aug. 1, when the first court hearing of Megawati's lawsuit challenging her removal as PDI chief was due, the army warned that, if forced, it would shoot at demonstrators.

Make no mistake, however: Indonesia is no outlaw nation. Nor is it in any danger of collapse. It is a stalwart of ASEAN. It has been a key player in regional diplomatic achievements such as bringing peace to Indochina. It is a magnet for foreign investors. What happens in Indonesia has ramifications beyond its shores.

For now, foreign funds continue to pour into the country. Yet "there's no doubt people are being prudent in the way they view the investment climate in Indonesia," says one U.S. executive. An official in the New York-based America-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce says that since the death of the first lady, Tien Suharto, companies ring the office daily for updates on the political situation.

Suharto makes no apologies for ruling the country with an iron grip. The justification: as a potentially fractious entity, Indonesia needs a firm hand to guide it. The payoff: stability and economic growth. In the 1960s, per capita GDP was about $50. Today it is over $1,000. The World Bank says the percentage of people in absolute poverty has dropped from 60% in 1970 to about 14% now, or 28 million people. Not for nothing is Suharto known as Bapak Pembangunan -- the father of development.

But many Indonesians now take prosperity for granted, and expect more transparency on the part of the government. Also, development has been uneven -- the wealth gap is still wide. Indeed, many of the weekend protestors were relatively poor folk furious as much -- perhaps more so -- about the lack of opportunities as they were about political issues. Of some 2.3 million workers entering the job market each year, only about 300,000 can find fulltime employment. "We are not PDI; we are just the people," groused a resident of a slum behind Jalan Salemba Raya, where much of the destruction occurred. "We want to eat hamburgers, but all we can afford is tempe (soybean cake)." The frequent labor stoppages, notes World Bank country director Dennis de Tray, "indicate a sense of unfairness in the system."

The messages have been acknowledged in some official quarters, but not all. "We have concentrated on growth rather than equity," says Lt.-Gen. Syarwan Hamid, a prominent soldier. "Now we have to be more concerned with equity." Adds National Planning Minister Ginandjar Kartasas-mita: "The gaps are not only between rich and poor, but between regions, sectors and the sexes." The disparities, he says, are feeding social and political tensions.

With a parliamentary election scheduled for next June, many activists believe it is time for a now-or-never push to force change. New groups -- most operating illegally -- have begun challenging the status quo. They are making demands that the authorities will simply not yield to: more representative government, a retreat by the military from its place at center-stage, a limit of two presidential terms, even Suharto's departure. "People are more aware of their rights, and they are becoming more radical," says political scientist Arbi. "They are no longer looking for compromise, but for structural change."

Because they are unlikely to get it, and because few official avenues of protest exist, those unhappy with Suharto's New Order government are increasingly taking to the streets to be heard. In early July, some 20,000 striking factory laborers in Surabaya, East Java, joined in a march with political activists to protest low wages and unhealthy working conditions. This was one of the first occasions the two groups had linked up.

Workers see the military as ranged against them. Many have long accused the army of collusion with factory owners to keep employees in line. When U.S. rights activist Jesse Jackson recently visited a sports shoe factory with labor leader Mochtar Pakpahan, none of the workers was keen to talk to them. "They told us the military was watching and that they were afraid," Pakpahan told Asiaweek, shortly before he himself was taken into custody after the Jakarta riots.

Suharto and the government are also coming under fire from closer range. Last month, no less than the speaker of the House of Representatives, Wahono, let loose with an uncharacteristic outburst. "We are seeing the signs of the culture of hypocrisy sweeping across the community," he said in an address to the House. "Our leaders say one thing, then do another." Granted, the words were oblique, as is the Javanese way. But they resonated even among those who have traditionally supported Suharto. "There is no shame anymore," says a leading ethnic Chinese businessman whose family is close to the president: "Wahono is one of the few prepared to [criticize] aloud."

Indeed, grumbles in corporate boardrooms about Suharto Inc. are growing louder. "The family, the vested interests, cannot be controlled," says the ethnic Chinese businessman. "They want everything, and the president is letting them overrun all the approval systems that were put in place over the past 25 years. And when the president sets that kind of example, every senior official follows." The business community now ignores invitations to attend ministers' speeches, he says. "In the past we lived in fear of these people, but today they are doing only what the president wants and what his sons and daughters want." Even diehard Suharto supporters ex-pressed shock at the unprecedented tax breaks that were given to the president's son, Hutomo Mandala Putra, to build a national car.

There seems less backing, too, for Suharto in the military, which he heads as supreme commander. "Pak Harto is the only power in this country," notes Maj.-Gen. Zen Maulani, a recently retired and widely respected soldier. "Not everyone in the armed forces is happy with this."

Suharto also seems less able to fully control his top officers. Divisions in the armed forces have become more apparent. When senior soldiers recently attended the PDI's rump congress in Medan, Sumatra -- convened to oust Megawati -- Minister for Defense and Security Edi Sudrajat, a retired top general, was conspicuously absent.

Even the military's harsh crackdown over the weekend has generated intriguing questions that have no easy answers. Did Suharto, who has yet to say anything publicly about the riots, order it? Or was armed forces chief Gen. Feisal Tanjung acting on his own, either to buttress his own ambitions or to test the president, or both?

The Indonesian strongman has repeatedly defied the doomsayers who predicted time and again that his reign is coming to an end. So he should not be written off prematurely. His health is good enough for a man his age. And it is virtually impossible to vote Suharto out of office. Even if the government party, Golkar, falters in the parliamentary polls next year (an unlikely scenario), other legislators cannot influence the final outcome of the presidential selection. A 1,000-strong assembly chooses the president. The assembly includes the 425-member elected House. But the rest of the seats are filled by government appointees. It is a fool-proof mechanism.

Yet many believe the president does not need the system rigged in his favor, and that he retains plenty of popular support. Says Sumarsono, a ranking Golkar official from Central Java: "From the middle class down, Suharto is still seen as the natural leader."

Be that as it may, for those who want to protest Suharto's continued reign, one way is to cast a ballot against Golkar. But the options for anti-government voters are not promising. The PDI is back in the government's fold after Megawati's ouster. And the only other party that can legally field candidates also hews to parameters set by officialdom. When one young bureaucrat, moved aside in his department after he uncovered a case of high-level corruption, is asked who he will vote for next year, he says: "The parties are all the same. I will golput [abstain]."

No one knows what Suharto will do. In keeping with his character, he says little and only acts when he has to. In Indonesia's political drama, he is both the narrator and the protagonist.

Will he step down in 1998, when the next presidential selection takes place? "If so, then nothing will happen, even though there will be high tension during the general election next year," says the ethnic Chinese businessman. Or will Suharto seek a seventh term, install a suitable vice-president -- one that will guarantee his family a secure future -- and then abdicate after a year or two? Both alternatives may be irrelevant. "There is the risk that the growing anger of the activists will coalesce into a movement to confront Suharto and the military" before he steps down, says political scientist Arbi.

And if Suharto refuses to yield? "If he wants to stay on, we will not be able to stop a social revolution," says the ethnic Chi-nese businessman. "The poor will not differentiate between those who are linked to Suharto and those who operate independently. We will all come under attack."

That frightening prediction, however unlikely, spooks not only many Indonesians but other Asians as well. "It just goes to show how dangerous it is to centralize power in one individual," notes Malaysian commentator Chandra Muzaffar. If Suharto believes that he has a divine right to rule, then he should also bear in mind another traditional Javanese notion: that graciously withdrawing from high office is the ultimate display of power.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

Today on CNN

Back to the top   © 2000 Asiaweek. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.