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Suharto's fall was bloody and frightening, and I was there

Sydney Morning Herald - May 20, 2018

Karuni Rompies, Jakarta – I'll never forget what my boss told me on the morning of May 21, 1998. "He'll resign. Today!"

He was referring to Suharto, the former general officially installed as Indonesia's president in 1968 and still there 30 years later.

It was 6.30am and I was in a taxi on the way to work. Students had been protesting for months, demanding Suharto step down in the midst of a severe regional monetary crisis that led to allegations of corruption and nepotism, alongside accusations of human rights abuses.

The last big student protest against Suharto had been in 1974. After those riots, Suharto's government moved gradually into the universities and silenced the student movement.

By 1998, for most Indonesians, it was unthinkable that the country might be led by anyone but Suharto. He was too strong to be overthrown.

But what happened on May 12, 1998, changed all that. Four students from the private Trisakti University in West Jakarta fell to the ground dead after the anti-riot squad randomly shot at hundreds of protesting students who had dispersed peacefully and were walking back to campus.

To this day, nobody knows what actually triggered the squad to open fire at the end of a peaceful rally. But those killings prompted new and even greater horrors in the evening. Mobs came out of nowhere and attacked Chinatown in Jakarta. They burned down shops and houses belonging to the ethnic Chinese Indonesians who lived there.

I have never been so terrified, particularly after we heard unconfirmed reports that some Chinese women were being raped. I thought this was the beginning of the fall of Indonesia.

Three days of riots in Jakarta and other cities pushed the political situation to the brink. Not only were buildings being burned down and shops looted, but several hundred lives were taken and many ethnic Chinese women were raped.

The killing of the four students fuelled the anger of their fellows. They consolidated and went to parliament, forcing MPs to demand Suharto's resignation immediately. They told them they would stay overnight in the building to pressure leaders to issue the statement.

They went up to the roof of the parliament building and stood there for hours. Thousands more stayed on the ground, chanting songs against Suharto and his regime.

Still in my taxi, I didn't want to immediately believe what my boss had said. I phoned a friend. "I am at the palace right now," she said. "It's packed with journalists! Hurry up and get here!"

Now I believed it. I told the taxi driver to speed through the almost deserted streets. Only army tanks and vehicles with water cannon were to be seen where students had marched. The only civilian vehicles belonged to media companies and motorbikes carrying cameramen.

I soon arrived at my office, the Jakarta bureau of the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun. My boss was on the phone again, perhaps digging for more details from our palace stringer.

At around 9am our attention suddenly shifted to the TV screen when the reporter announced that Suharto was going to speak. I watched with pounding heart as the strongman stood before a microphone. The familiar, calm voice I had known for decades read the words written on the papers he was holding. The first few sentences were not the news we were waiting for. I worried he had changed his mind.

Then finally the moment we had awaited for years arrived. Suharto said calmly: "I have decided to quit my position as the president of the Republic of Indonesia, starting from when I have finished reading this statement on Thursday, May 21, 1998..."

"It actually happened and it was so simple!" I thought to myself. The office fell silent. Digesting what we had heard, we didn't immediately type up Suharto's words. We simply looked at each other and smiled. My boss said quietly: "He's no longer president."

Twenty years later, Indonesia is still standing, but it looks very different and, hopefully, better. Press freedom and direct presidential elections are among the most obvious changes.

The elevation of Joko Widodo – an ordinary furniture entrepreneur with no attachment to the political elite in Jakarta – to the presidency is one of the sweet fruits of "Reformasi". The media are now able to openly criticise government policies, produce stories about the arrests of governors, former cabinet ministers, MPs, judges, prosecutors and police generals by the anti-corruption commission.

Corruption is rife, yes, but the arrests show there is now independent law enforcement. It's a stark contrast to Suharto's time, when the cronies and children of the president were untouchable and the executive was publicly known for its intervention in the judicial process.

Christine Tjhin, now a researcher at CSIS Indonesia, says Reformasi allowed ethnic Chinese Indonesians to participate in politics, a development no one could imagine 20 years ago.

In May 1998, a dozen teenagers hurled stones at Christine's parents' house in West Jakarta as she hid with her family and four other people at the back of her house. As night fell, they smelled a strong odour of petrol and heard people shouting "Burn! Burn!".

"We came out from hiding and rushed to the gate. I thought we would either be killed by the mob or killed by the fires... the mob saw us, then one of them grabbed my hair, they spat on me, cursing us, shouting 'Chinese dog!'. I simply tried to avoid eye contact."

It was the family's ethnically Indonesian neighbours who saved them.

Asked what Reformasi had brought to Indonesia, Christine replied: "Obviously there are more positive things, although there are still many things we haven't achieved. But as a nation, we may be proud of what we have achieved. "I believe pluralism will enrich and further develop Indonesia."

[Karuni Rompies has been the assistant correspondent in Fairfax Media's Jakarta bureau since 2002.]

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/suharto-s-fall-was-bloody-and-frightening-and-i-was-there-20180517-p4zfwi.html