Suharto Tries to Pacify Combustible Indonesia

Calm returns to Jakarta after deadly rioting. More protests against Suharto are planned for May 20.

Regaining control of his riot-scarred capital, Indonesia's President Suharto this weekend mounted a show of face.

Television reports showed him meeting government officials, although he had little to say to a nation aggrieved by two days of looting and arson in this city that killed more than 500 people last week.

Word of conciliatory steps filtered out - a planned Cabinet reshuffle, a reversal of price hikes, a meeting to at least discuss political reform - but through it all he seemed ever the fatherly and imperturbable ruler, an image he has cultivated for decades.

Across this vast archipelago of a nation, people are now hunkering down to watch and wait. A top Muslim leader vowed yesterday to mobilize millions on Wednesday to call for Mr. Suharto's resignation, part of a student-led nationwide day of protest.

But the target of this opposition - the president - seems firmly in control, as his benign expression conveyed this weekend. One former Indonesian Cabinet minister, reclining on a sofa in his Baroque-influenced living room, cautions: "Never underestimate Suharto." He dismisses speculation of the president's imminent departure from office. "It's not a question of weeks or days, because he is going to try to outmaneuver people."

"We're in a straight-line situation: He stays on," concurs a diplomat who like the ex-minister spoke on condition of anonymity. "And that is still the most likely scenario."

Nonetheless, foreign governments urged their citizens to leave. The US chartered planes for the purpose and seats filled up quickly. "It's amazing to see the country fall so quickly," said Jun Labadan, a consultant to the US Agency for International Development, as he waited in the early hours of Saturday morning in front of the US ambassador's residence. Then he and his wife boarded a bus for the airport as Indonesian television crews recorded the scene.

Much as last week's tumult would indicate, Indonesia seems on the verge of revolution. People are angry and frustrated with a dictatorial leader whose family has amassed several fortunes. With the economy in collapse since last summer, a consensus has formed that Indonesia needs a new ruler.

But politics here is a machine only Suharto can operate. "The system is blocked and it's hard to see what can move to produce change," the diplomat says.

At the same time the political pressure is building. Economic discontent spurred calls for "dialogue" this February, demands for "reformation" in March and April, and now an insistence on transition. "The only thing that will satisfy the people and the leaders who have grass-roots support is this president relinquishing power," says Mohtar Masud, a political scientist at Gadjah Mada University in the central Javanese city of Yogyakarta.

There are four key elements in this transition - Suharto himself, a handful of top military commanders, the student protest movement, and a group of potential opposition leaders. How these forces work together or come into conflict will determine whether this country can change leaders peacefully.

Indonesia has a short track record in this regard, and it isn't a good one. Independent since 1949, the country has had just one transition at the top, in 1966, when then-General Suharto took power from the country's first constitutional president, Sukarno.

That shift took place after a murderous attack on the military high command that the government says was initiated by communist coup plotters. The military then orchestrated the liquidation of the Communist Party and the slaughter of its adherents, resulting in perhaps a half-million deaths.

Many Indonesians say that Suharto, who has held power for 32 years, is unwilling to step down in part because he sees himself as a kinglike figure entitled to rule unto death. "He is not going to resign voluntarily. He will try a lot of tricks," says the former Cabinet member, who says he agrees with scholars who argue that the concept of power in Java - Indonesia's main island and the source of the country's political culture - is absolute.

Others are in what seems to be an optimistic minority. "I think he realizes he must step down," says journalist and military historian Salim Said. "But he doesn't want people to dictate to him and he doesn't want to be humiliated."

Suharto is a general turned president, and the military remains at the center of power. As a result, there is near constant speculation among political watchers about the machinations of the military's most powerful generals. Among them are Gen. Wiranto, chief of the armed forces, and Maj. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, head of the Army's strategic command. Both have close ties to the president; the former served as Suharto's aide for three years and the latter is his son-in-law.

But analysts believe they are rivals put in positions of power to watch over each other and prevent either one from leading a move against the president. In recent days the parking lot of Maj. Gen. Prabowo's headquarters in central Jakarta has been filled with several columns of neatly parked tanks, their gun barrels tilted skyward at precisely the same angle, and it is a measure of the uncertainty gripping Indonesia that their presence can be interpreted in various ways.

The diplomat ticks off the options: They may be on display to protect the president. They may be a warning to those who might move against Prabowo. Or they may be a signal of Prabowo's own "aggressive intentions." Given the atmosphere, the diplomat adds, "I'm willing to consider things I wasn't willing to consider three weeks ago ... like a coup attempt."

MUCH more public are the activities of Indonesia's students, who have organized protests nearly every day for about three months. Their demonstrations have increasingly targeted the president and his family.

The killing of at least four students at Jakarta's Trisakti University by security forces on Tuesday already appears to be a turning point, but the students retreated to their campuses Thursday, as protests devolved into looting and mayhem. It remains unclear what drove so many Jakartans to acts of destruction last week and in some other cities over the weekend.

"It's very complicated," says Willem Tambunan, an unemployed man who works odd jobs, like guiding tourists through Jakarta's National Monument. "It's anger and poverty and not having the chance to do well in the future." He adds that politics was part of the rage, though not the primary focus, as was envy of the country's prosperous Chinese minority, whose shops and homes were targeted.

The week ahead promise more student protest, perhaps on a scale that has not been seen here since the 1960s. The military may again be forced to decide between using violence to defend Suharto's rule or abandoning their leader in favor of change.

Most feared is the possibility that the military will split in two - one side for the regime and the other for its critics - raising the possibility of civil war.

In many parts of Indonesia and especially in Jakarta people are gathering in discussion groups to talk about reform. The leaders of two large Islamic organizations, outwardly nonpolitical associations that have millions of members, and Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of the ever-popular first president, seem to be struggling to bring reform-minded citizens together, but these efforts remain inconclusive.

Sometimes working with the students and sometimes not, these grass-roots leaders face a seemingly inescapable reality: They have no hope without the military, or a substantial part of it, on their side.

Underlying all these elements is a collapsed economy in which unemployment and prices are rising as businesses fail and incomes stay flat or disappear.

"We can't improve the economy significantly until we reform the political system," says the former Cabinet minister.

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