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Protests peaceful as troops take control

The Wall Street Journal - May 20, 1998

Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians marched against President Suharto across the nation Wednesday, while political leaders jockeyed for his ouster and the military took control of Jakarta.

With barbed wire and tanks, platoons of soldiers sealed off a park next to the Presidential Palace in Jakarta to block a huge antigovernment protest. Opposition leaders quickly called off that rally, fearing more bloodshed.

Activists had promised to stage big anti-Suharto rallies across the country to mark the 90th anniversary of the birth of Indonesia movement against Dutch rule.

Police estimated 250,000 people protested in Yogyakarta, Mr. Suharto's hometown, to demand that he step down immediately. Other witnesses said the turnout was twice that number.

Large but peaceful protests also erupted in a half dozen other cities – including Bogor, Bandung, Solo and Ujung Pandang – and students occupied Parliament for the third straight day.

In a speech Wednesday, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged Mr. Suharto to "preserve his legacy" of 32 years in power by stepping down and permitting a democratic transition.

Her comments were echoed by a leader of a faction of Mr. Suharto's ruling party, who said he would renew calls in the Parliament for the Indonesian president to step down immediately. Irsyad Sudiro, head of the Golkar Party, said the faction would push for a special session of the Parliament. Golkar dominates the 500-member Parliament, but it was unclear how much weight the appeal would carry as the legislature is largely symbolic.

Mrs. Albright also recommended that Mr. Suharto be restrained in dealing with the thousands of protesters.

Outside Parliament, some 150,000 troops poured into the streets Wednesday, helicopters swooped overhead and tanks lined up beside coiled wire and wooden barricades in a potent show of support for the 76-year-old autocrat.

"Stability in the city is a top priority. We are preventing any trouble," Jakarta military commander Maj. Gen. Syafrie Syamsudin said.

Protests have skyrocketed this month since the government imposed austerity measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund in an attempt to stem Indonesia's worst economic crisis in decades. Last week, Jakarta was rocked by rioting, looting and arson in which more than 500 people were killed. Despite the overwhelming military presence in Jakarta Wednesday, 10,000 students swarmed over Parliament, turning the formal complex into the site of a wild street party.

Some students danced in the main assembly hall, waded in a ceremonial pool or climbed onto the roof. Others broke into offices, tearing up official papers or turning them into paper planes that were dropped off balconies. "Freedom!" yelled some. "Hang Suharto!" shouted others.

Heeding warnings of bloodshed, opposition leader Amien Rais first called off the rally Wednesday that had been expected to draw up to one million people. Later, students gave him a tumultuous welcome at Parliament, making it clear that he is now the focal point of anti-Suharto dissent.

Mr. Rais Wednesday accused the military of being ready to tolerate a "Tiananmen" situation – a reference to the massacre of hundreds of pro-democracy students by Chinese troops in Beijing's main square in 1989.

"An army general [told me] he doesn't care at all if a Tiananmen accident ... will take place today in Jakarta," Mr. Rais said. "I was so shocked hearing this."

Jakarta residents faced another looming problem: food shortages. Stores and markets have been shut for days, many of them burned or looted in last week's riots.

The government said its state-controlled rice supplies remain adequate but cited problems with distribution.

Foreigners continued to flee the unrest in Jakarta, with 2,400 South Koreans returning home Wednesday on emergency flights. Malaysia tightened security along its border with Indonesia.

Mr. Suharto announced Tuesday he will end his rule – but only after pressing through reforms and holding new elections. State secretary Saadilah Mursid said a reform council will be announced Thursday to draft new electoral laws and review the structure of Parliament.

Opponents say completing Mr. Suharto's reform plan could take months or longer and accused Mr. Suharto of prolonging his hold onto power.

Mr. Suharto, a retired general, came to power in time of turmoil in 1966 and has governed with little toleration for dissent ever since.

His iron-fisted rule provided stability and, until the financial crisis set in last year, economic growth for this sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago of 202 million people, the world's fourth most populous nation.

Critics accuse him of widespread human rights abuses and of lording over a regime riddled with corruption and nepotism.