Wahid's cry fails to draw massive protest

The ousted leader stayed in the presidential palace yesterday as President Megawati mulled new cabinet.

As the Indonesian legislature prepared for Monday's ouster of President Abdurrahman Wahid on charges of corruption, Mr. Wahid invoked his ardent supporters to come to his aid.

Three years ago, thousands of pro-democracy demonstraters rocked the streets, toppling the 32-year reign of the dictator Gen. Suharto. But this time around, the demonstrators responding to Wahid's rally cry have been muted. Menacing predictions of suicide bombers and massive disturbances have not come to fruition.

As Wahid dug his heels in yesterday, refusing to leave the sprawling white presidential palace, the chants of a few thousand young Indonesians here were a virtual wimper. Against a backdrop of armed guards and curls of barbed wire, street vendors sold cold soda and slices of melon, and the scene was more carnival than combat zone.

Indonesia's leadership upheaval lacks the unifying factor of a common enemy that Suharto had furnished. And after the toppling of Suharto, the students this time are perhaps jaded.

"In 1998, it was the first time we could express ourselves, so we were more excited then than we are now," says Hartono Sufi, who is president of the student union at Taruma Nagara University.

But elements of instability nonetheless threaten to reverberate into the reign of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is beginning to put together a cabinet this week.

Like the presidential chair-shuffling in the neighboring Philippines six months ago, Indonesia's precarious political situation is clouded by a constitutionally murky process of how to replace one leader with another. In each case, a new president was sworn in before the current one had resigned.

Just as former president Joseph Estrada has refused to give up his claims to the presidency - and continues to cultivate a loyal group of followers who would like to return him to office - Indonesia's new president, Megawati, may find her tenure plagued with claims by Wahid and his supporters that he is the rightful resident of the palace.

And just as the "People Power II" gatherings in the Philippines were an insignificant backdrop to what was essentially a decision of political elites to eject Estrada from office, some of the students posted outside the presidential palace say the peoples' voices are being ignored.

"They are stepping all over democracy, and what we learned last time is that the students are the guardians of democracy," says Wildan Hassan Syadzily, a Koran student at the State Institute for Islamic Studies in Jakarta.

Mr. Syadzily, the university's student-union president, was one of the many students who barricaded themselves inside the national assembly building in 1998.

But today's Indonesian political arena is far more fractured than in 1998, and public opinion among university students is no longer monolithic.

Another reason for the tepid response is that the movement which gained so much steam by opposing Suharto in 1998 was soon divided over whether to support his immediate successor, B.J. Habibie.

"Since then, the country has been stuck in a kind of deadlock, where the previous order that had been established was damaged, but not swept away," says Jeffrey Winters, a professor of political economy at Northwestern University. No real platform, save vague platitudes against corruption and in favor of democracy, has taken root. "There is no ideological sentiment. No one has produced a manifesto," Winters adds. "The only thing that motivates this movement is an antithesis of what was."

Sufi, a Buddhist, says the media have incorrectly portrayed Wahid's supporters as exclusively Muslim. Wahid was formerly the head of the Nahdlatul Ulama, which - with a roster of 40 million - is believed to be the world's largest Muslim organization.

Yet, although many of the group's followers have an almost divine admiration for Wahid - whose grandfather founded the organization - its leaders appear to have pulled the carpet out from under Wahid by telling rank-and-file members not to resort to violence.

Nonetheless, Mr. Sufi, an engineering student who comes from the troubled province of Aceh, says the students have not ruled anything out.

"We will stay here until Gus Dur is permitted to stay, or unless he leaves of his own free will," he says, using Wahid's nickname. "We view violence as a last resort, but it is an option."

In recent months, newspapers here have been full of reports that suicide squads were ready to die "defending Gus Dur."

Agus Shebar Gunauran, a shoe factory worker who recruits activists for the youth movement of Wahid's National Awakening Party, or PKB, says the struggle is not over yet.

"I won't say whether these squads exist or not, but there is a problem because we are ready to die for Gus Dur," says Mr. Gunauran, sporting a military fatigue vest and a black "Pro Gus Dur" baseball hat. "I myself am ready to die for him. We will defend him, even if we have to go inside the palace to defend him."

Sufi, Gunauran, and a dedicated core of protesters, clinging to the road that rings the palace, remain by the side of Wahid, who refuses to leave the palace or acknowledge the process that replaced him.

Muhammad Ali Sodikin, a young, tough-looking stonemason, dropped everything to hop a train Sunday and travel across country to Jakarta. Wearing a black leather jacket despite the sultry July sun, Mr. Sodikin vows to stick with his revered leader at the presidential palace. "I will stay here as long as it takes."

Surveying the crowd of mostly young men outside the palace, Sodikin adds, "Everyone here considers Gus Dur as their president."

"Maybe we will use violence," he hedges, "maybe not."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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