Remaking a nation on the streets

Indonesia's still-angry students meet a violent response from police as they demand more reform in the post-Suharto era.

Six months after ousting an authoritarian ruler, the world's fourth-most populous nation remains violently split over how to form a new democracy.

Indonesia's capital was rocked by protests, police killings, and looting over three days last week, leaving the new president, B.J. Habibie, looking weaker.

The political turmoil might further set back the recovery of a nation that was the worst hit by Asia's economic crisis and had only just shown signs of hitting bottom and achieving some political stability.

The protests, led by thousands of students, targeted a national assembly setting up rules for elections in May that could leave Mr. Habibie in power and the military keeping a hand in government - just what the protesters oppose.

The violence was the worst since May, when riots triggered the downfall of longtime leader Suharto.

This time, the scene in Jakarta was similar: Crowds looted, stoned, and torched dozens of buildings, mainly in the north of the city, where most of the ethnic Chinese, a minority resented for their relative prosperity, run shops and businesses. Gangs took over parts of the major toll road and robbed passersby.

Hospitals reported five dead over the weekend, most hit when a group of crack troops shot into a crowd of looters. At least 11 others had been killed in clashes between protesters and soldiers Thursday and Friday.

But the violence was much less widespread and sustained than in May. Some supermarkets resumed business on Sunday, when an uneasy quiet returned to the capital. In front of one shopping center that had been plundered, traders put up their stalls again to hawk leather bags and clothes.

Habibie ordered General Wiranto, the military's chief commander, to crack down on what he called "subversive movements and actions that are endangering the unity and cohesion, and the fundamentals of the life of the nation and the state."

The police detained two political activists for questioning. Yunus Yosfia, the information minister, said police were searching for the signatories of a petition to replace Habibie and his Cabinet with a transitional government. These include retired generals who have sponsored one of the student groups, but its members have insisted they remained independent. Umar Juoro, an adviser to Habibie, said the retired generals were "just piggybacking" on the student movement. Suspicions persisted that the military provoked violence so that they could bring the unrest under control and therefore demonstrate they are indispensable.

Three other student organizations defied the crackdown on political activists by calling for a "transitional power" including a new government, president, and parliament. They urged Indonesia's more than 200 million people to go on a three-day strike in protest against the killings by the military and police, and demanded that both Habibie and Wiranto be held responsible.

WHILE dozens of opposition groups have called for Wiranto's resignation, attacks on Habibie have been much more muted. Many people are wary of Habibie, long the favorite protg of former President Suharto, but he has created some goodwill by initiating political reforms. A sharp drop in inflation in October and November has reduced hardship on the poor. "Many people don't like Habibie but they don't hate him," Mr. Juoro says. "Habibie won't sack Wiranto just yet. Wiranto has protected the Habibie government so without him Habibie is weaker."

The military came out of the violence looking even weaker, however, as students focus their anger on the military rather than the president or his predecessor. Security around Suharto's house was reinforced following rumors a student group planned to kidnap him.

But there was no sign of any group's intent to apply street justice on the former president.

Some 40,000 students and other protesters gathered peacefully in front of parliament on Saturday to express their anger with the People's Consultative Assembly, the highest legislature, which had adjourned the day before without satisfying demands for a corruption trial of Suharto and immediate removal of the military from politics. In other cities, students occupied airports and government radio stations.

The students left by sunset on Saturday without attacking parliament. marines, who are more popular than the rest of the military because they are less active in racketeering, managed to calm down both protesters and looters.

Some suggested the Marine Corps had split with the rest of the military, as some 200 marines marched with the students towards parliament.

But they appeared more intent on pacifying the crowd than rousing it against the government, while other marines helped the Army and police guard the parliament compound. Diplomats suggested they may have ignored orders to use force but were not about to rebel.

There was no sign of any split in the government or a coup attempt near the National Monument Square, around which are grouped the presidential palace, military headquarters, and several ministries. Helicopters and trucks brought in troops from various divisions to safeguard the offices. The presence of only a few armed personnel carriers and no tanks suggested troops were there to ward off rioters, not rival troops.

Most student groups have decided to rest until Wednesday, the end of three days of mourning for this weekend's victims. New rallies may well spark violence again but students said they wanted to avoid drawing the poor into the protests.

Slum dwellers, many malnourished because they have lost jobs in the economic crisis while food prices tripled, had provoked police charges by tossing rocks on Friday and led a spate of looting on Saturday.

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