Stark Power Plays in Indonesia

A troop buildup in Jakarta prevented a mass rally yesterday. Students kept vigil.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

One had to wonder where all these troops were last week, when rioters burned and battered their way through the streets of Indonesia's capital.

Yesterday, the country's military rid the Jakarta city center of just about everyone not wearing a uniform. A popular Muslim leader cancelled a mass rally planned to demand President Suharto's resignation, ceding the streets to at least 35,000 troops.

But away from the capital, Indonesians frustrated with the man who has ruled them for three decades mounted rallies. In the Javanese cultural capital of Yogyakarta, the local newspaper estimated that up to a half million gathered. (See protest, Page 18.)

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These rallies showed that the anti-Suharto movement is capable of protesting peacefully and is drawing an ever-widening spectrum of society. Yesterday, the Yogyakarta sultan, a moral leader in Suharto's home region, offered to help lead the struggle for reform. And in the United States, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called on Suharto to step down. (Item in News in Brief, Page 2)

Those close to Suharto took the cancellation of the Jakarta rally as a sign that his attempt to engineer a dignified and gradual withdrawal may prove successful, but other observers were less impressed.

"If this is what it takes to defend the president then I'd say this is the nadir of the regime, not the riots," says one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. The military explained the show of force by saying it was an act of prevention, not repression.

Last week, after security forces killed at least four students at a political rally, demonstrations degenerated into looting and arson that left more than 500 people dead. Officials have not yet explained why military and police seemed to make little effort to contain the civic unrest in Jakarta and other cities.

Crackdown on the capital

Worried that yesterday's rally could produce similar results, the military sealed off every major road leading into Jakarta's Freedom Square. Soldiers and marines manned barbed-wire covered barricades at hundreds of locations, often in the company of tanks.

The security forces have put as many troops into the city before, but observers said rarely if ever in so concentrated a manner. Although unofficial estimates put the number of troops on the streets at 100,000 or more, military sources said only a third of that amount had been mobilized.

This show of force takes place in an unfolding political context. Suharto, facing unprecedented criticism and a collapsed economy, "has decided his political legitimacy has declined and cannot be revived, but what he wants from the armed forces leadership is a dignified exit," says Juwono Sudarsono, the Cabinet minister responsible for the environment.

Mr. Sudarsono notes that Suharto is "carrying the burden of his own success" - a nation that has achieved rapid economic growth under his rule and now wants more democracy. But there are failures, too, such as weakened political institutions that leave future stability much in doubt.

Suharto is worried that his immediate departure could lead to unrest. In terms of popular support there is no obvious choice for president, the vice president has some enemies in powerful places, and some of the military's top generals are vying for position.

Bloodshed and even a civil war initiated by opposing military factions, says Sudarsono, "remain two very strong possibilities.... That's precisely why he wants this managed transition."

Suharto's successor?

The military is acting as manager and the chief of the armed forces, General Wiranto, is considered by Sudarsono and others to be the "most credible and acceptable [presidential choice] for the next couple years."

Even so, the general himself apparently does not want to appear to be engineering a power grab. Wiranto, who served as a personal aide to Suharto, may have learned well. The president, as a general, eased his predecessor, Sukarno, out of power over an 18-month period in the mid-1960s. Suharto was hailed as a hero at the time, but the students who are the center of the movement against him today are opposed to a military replacement.

Although yesterday's Freedom Square rally was halted, thousands of students were able to occupy the National Assembly complex. Many of them are very uncharitable about their president. "We have to hang him so Indonesia can get back to normal," says Argoutomo, a student from Sudirman University in central Java who rode on a train all night to join the protests.

For him, Suharto's isn't the only life at stake. The Assembly is starting to feel like an Indonesian Tiananmen Square, and the students acknowledge the risk of a crackdown. "I don't want that to happen in Indonesia, but if it does I will sacrifice myself," says Argoutomo.

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