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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


A report from inside the student revolution

By Yenni Kwok and
Jose Manuel Tesoro / Jakarta

Return to Main Story

The Military On political maneuvers

Habibie Inc. The new president's family values

Economy Many problems need fixing

Cronies Attention turns to Suharto's clan

Fortunes and Failings Suharto's Legacy

STUDENT MOVEMENTS ARE RARELY tidy, and the one that helped to shove Suharto from power was no exception. By the time soldiers turfed thousands of occupying undergraduates out of Jakarta's parliamentary complex on May 23, the place was a real mess. And the students' overall image also looked a little ragged.

The sleep-over at parliament will, of course, go down in the annals of Indonesian politics as a pivotal event (even if it happened only at the generals' pleasure). Bellowing "Suharto is a dog" on campus was radical in a nation where, only recently, such blasphemy could mean jail time. But actually mocking the Father of Development in his own rubber-stamp parliament? This was heady stuff. For a few hours, some students became drunk with their imagined power and prestige. It wasn't always pretty, but it was understandable.

For starters, there was the all-consuming fear of a Tiananmen II. The students may have appeared carefree after Suharto quit, but many were plenty scared during the four-day sit-in. They lived from hour one with the paranoia of a crackdown; rumors lumbered through the humid air, and, more than once, word came that soldiers were poised to burst in, wielding death.

Infiltration was another worry; Indonesian politics is haunted by shady characters inciting mobs to go too far and invite a harsh official response. As it was, boisterous students were pushing the envelope. Vandalism became theater. In the library, students shredded and burned documents. Someone smashed the glass door to the presidential washroom. Lamp bulbs and at least one television went missing. Students made out on the lawn.

Two months before, when assemblymen met to confer a seventh term on Suharto, parliament was officious, tightly guarded, antiseptically clean. Now it was strewn with cartons, water bottles, half-eaten food. The white, marble floor was smeared with brown dirt and footprints. The reek of clove cigarettes, sweat and filthy toilets hung in the air.

As the situation became anarchic, the original occupiers went home. Most were students from the University of Indonesia. Organized and politically astute, these students, many of them sons and daughters of the elite, had managed to convince assembly speaker Harmoko to give Suharto an ultimatum. They figured that was enough and did not relish the mounting chaos.

By the time B.J. Habibie was sworn in as president, most of the students at parliament hailed from lesser schools. They were not as organized, nor as savvy; they were more into having fun. Outside, people began to worry the students would stay indefinitely and keep demonstrating against whomever, whatever. The hooligans and party animals at parliament could spark a crackdown and spoil everything. They were losing public sympathy fast.

On May 22 a rent-a-crowd of Habibie-ites showed up to confront students. The pro-Habibie people tried to get into the compound but were stopped at the gates. Soon, taunts and refuse started flying. Eventually soldiers stepped in and forced a truce.

By the final day of the sit-in, parliament had become party central. With the danger mostly defused, scores of people began showing up to pose for posterity. Others were hungry and eager to snarf up some of the free food supplied all week by middle-class volunteers, unsung heroes who kept the students going.

While much of the capital's commerce remained off-line, business was brisk at parliament. Vendors inside and outside the gates flogged burgers, soft drinks, headbands emblazoned with "Reform Supporters." Canny entrepreneurs sold camera film so that the late arrivals could prove they were there. (Fast forward: "Look, here is grandma just after we forced the evil dictator to resign!")

Paranoia had prompted student leaders to cobble together an ad hoc security apparatus. For much of the occupation parliament was off-limits to all but card-carrying students and journalists. Later, anyone could get in, though students guarding the third floor, where their leaders were holding "presidiums," began taking themselves seriously. Soon there was talk that a "Suharto attitude" was emerging among protesters. The media were no longer so welcome; a reporter from state-controlled Antara news agency was barred from his own office.

Finally, enough was enough. At 11:50 p.m. on May 22, soldiers marched through the main gate. Some 50 students lay down in the way of military trucks, backed up by about 200 more, singing and praying with their arms folded. People passed smokes to students blocking the trucks. "This could be my last cigarette," one said - but by then such theatrics were getting old.

At 2:30 a.m. the sit-in officially ended. Students boarded buses back to campus and a bystander called out: "Go home! Your mothers are waiting." The struggle for political and economic reform was just beginning. But the party was over.

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

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