Indonesia's Paths Out of Chaos

Riots in capital and military's apparent waffling trigger talk of alternatives to Suharto as his legitimacy fades quickly.

Pathoni, a student at Teacher's Institute in Jakarta, held up a sign at a protest this week with this warning: "Reform or Revolt."

His words were a clear forecast of Indonesia's present crisis. The capital of the world's fourth-most-populous nation was in chaos yesterday. And the Army appeared to waffle in its loyalty to President Suharto who, in turn, appeared uncertain about his future.

Mr. Suharto, having ignored months of student protests demanding immediate political reform, now faces a wider revolt that may not be an organized attack against his rule but could be just as damaging.

Suharto's strengths are still the lack of a credible alternative and the unwillingness of leading generals to confront him. But his position is becoming more and more untenable.

Yesterday's images of widespread looting and many soldiers befriending protesters suggest at a surface level that Suharto's legitimacy as a ruler is gone. "As far as the people are concerned - yes," says author and publisher Aristides Katoppo, "but I think he still has a few cards up his sleeve."

Suharto can resort to emergency powers or declare martial law. Or, he may exit slowly.

The leader of the country's parliament said legislators would discuss comments by Suharto that he would step down if no longer trusted by the people. But Mr. Katoppo noted that Suharto appointed a majority of the people in that body, which has long ratified his decisions without question. "The system has long used formal, legal means" to solidify the president's rule, Katoppo says. "Suharto still has a very firm grip."

Suharto yesterday pledged he would not use force and even toyed with stepping down, saying he would be willing to "lead from behind," presumably as Lee Kuan Yew does in Singapore.

Probosutedjo, Suharto's half-brother, said he had urged Suharto to stand down even before his seventh reelection in March, and said the family, owners of dozens of enterprises and believed to have much to lose from a change in power, would stand behind him if he did.

But few in the capital, Jakarta, believed Suharto was serious, assuming instead he was posturing or planning to get his hand-picked parliament to reaffirm his powers. Even if Suharto would use the mayhem as an excuse to use force, however, many believe he may not succeed in restoring order and keeping power. "It could be a matter of days," one diplomat says.

Leaders in opposition

Even if no single leader has stood up, a group of opposition leaders is rushing to form a council to appeal for support of the people and the military.

They are expected to include Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the late president Sukarno; and Amien Rais and Abdurrahman Wahid, leaders of the largest two Muslim organizations.

Mar'ie Muhammad, a respected finance minister in the previous Cabinet and a former student activist, and fellow economists Emil Salim, Mohammad Sadli, and Kwik Kian Gie are expected to join. This group includes some of the country's brightest and least-corrupt economists, a relief to foreign investors, but few competent political decisionmakers.

Ms. Megawati holds the widest popular appeal, but even her followers are deeply disappointed by her failure to even try to gain support from other leaders. She failed to show up at the group's first meeting yesterday, possibly because traveling through Jakarta was simply too dangerous.

Likely scenario

Ong Hok Ham, a prominent historian, and others believe that a military crackdown, with or without Suharto as president, is still the most likely scenario. "Activists have been kidnapped, artists are put in jail, students have been killed," he says. "If they are willing to go this far they are serious. Suharto is a fighter, and even if he were not a fighter anymore there will be other fighters around him. It will get much worse and much tougher. This will destroy the economy."

But even the military faces a lack of clear leadership. Many critics of Suharto had put their hopes on General Wiranto, chief commander of the armed forces, who appears to be a moderate. But he has shown little leadership in recent days, making muddled statements without condemning the use of force or indicating whether or not he supports Suharto. He chided the students for sparking the violence by moving off campus, a remark that will do little to endear him to demonstrators.

As analysts have noted in recent months, change in Indonesia may come when the military decides it must side with the people rather than the president, but there was no sign yesterday that such a point has been reached.

Salim Said, a military historian who attended a meeting at the military's headquarters near Jakarta yesterday, said a high-level discussion on the country's political future was broken off as reports of mayhem filtered in. "The people are looting the city and the military apparently cannot control them fully," said Dr. Said.

Where students stand

Students largely stayed on their campuses yesterday, since rioting has not been their goal. Those burning and robbing stores are people hit by the sharp price increases of recent weeks, steps Suharto has taken in compliance with Indonesia's bailout package organized by the International Monetary Fund.

Pathoni and his fellow students, those who launched the drive that looks set to unseat Suharto, appear to have little say in all this. They have some sympathy for Rais and Megawati, but not much, and they have refused to talk to the military, for fear of seeing another general piggyback on their movement, just as Suharto did in 1966.

Student leaders admit they are still poorly organized and even opted to stay scattered to evade police scrutiny. While good at organizing protests, their lack of coherence will be a weakness in any post-Suharto power positioning.

The opposition, the students, and the military have essentially the same fears - uncertainty which helps explains the lack of coordinated action.

"We have no agreement about what to do next," said Sulaiman Haikal, secretary of the Pijar student movement, before the rioting broke out. "The people are ready but we have no strong figure. We are still waiting for the one who is ready to stand in front. It could blow up, and we could just have anarchy."

Indeed, Jakarta, a city of 11 million on the island of Java, was in chaos yesterday as rioters plundered and torched shops, banks, and supermarkets. At least three soldiers were stoned to death and 11 ethnic Chinese, hated for their relative prosperity, burned to death. Total casualties are believed to be much higher.

In Surabaya, Indonesia's second city, the military let crowds and students take to the streets but avoided clashes.

In Semarang, Medand, and Yogyakarta, protests were peaceful as well but just as outspoken about their frustration with Suharto's failure to prevent the collapse of their economy.

The crisis is precipitating international concern from Washington to Tokyo. A top Japanese leader hinted in an interview yesterday that his country might use its leverage in Indonesia to encourage change.

Noting that Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Suharto share a common understanding as fellow Asians, Liberal Democratic Party general secretary Koichi Kato said, "Maybe through this personal relationship, the prime minister will have some chance to persuade the president about possible measures to settle the political crisis but in what [situation] and when, we don't know yet."

* Staff writer Cameron W. Barr in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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