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After Suharto, who? army's backing crucial

International Herald Tribune - May 18, 1998

Harold Crouch, Canberra – President Suharto's three-decade rule seems about to end, but the succession is still far from clear.

Three months of student demonstrations demanding his resignation turned last week into mass rioting that has cost about 500 lives and caused enormous damage in the capital. The rupiah has collapsed again, much of the Chinese and international business community has fled and the International Monetary Fund's rescue package is in tatters.

Mr. Suharto, a former commander of the armed forces, has always relied on the military to support his regime. But there are doubts about how far the armed forces are willing to back him now. For some years many officers have privately believed that it was time for Mr. Suharto to step down, but they have been reluctant to move openly against him.

Mr. Suharto has maintained control over the military by ensuring that no single group of officers is dominant. Pursuing a divide-and-rule strategy, he has neutralized the military's capacity to take independent political initiatives.

Today the military leadership revolves around two centers of power. Mr. Suharto appointed his former adjutant, General Wiranto, as armed forces commander in February and then promoted his son-in-law, Lieutenant General Prabowo Subianto, to head the 27,000-strong Kostrad, the army strategic reserve force. Several regional commanders, including the Jakarta commander, are allied with General Prabowo.

The rivalries in the top military leadership help explain its hesitance to put pressure on Mr. Suharto. It is difficult enough to gain the backing of all key commanders for a joint approach to Mr. Suharto to try to persuade him to step down, let alone to launch a coup against him. The last thing the military wants is to take precipitate action that might pit rival military units against each other.

Under the leadership of General Wiranto, the military has been remarkably restrained in confronting the current crisis. He has defended the right of students to express their aspirations (which included vociferous demands for Mr. Suharto to step down) provided they remained on their campuses.

And even during the massive rioting of last week, troops in many areas stood aside while mobs destroyed and looted shops, homes and banks. The deaths in the rioting were overwhelmingly caused by the rioters' actions, not by the military. The event that sparked the rioting – the killing of six students with live bullets on Tuesday – clearly contravened General Wiranto's orders that only rubber bullets be used.

Nevertheless, the army cannot stand aside and allow Jakarta, and other cities, to descend into chaos. It has become obvious to much of Jakarta's political elite that the restoration of order will be difficult to achieve as long as Mr. Suharto remains in office. If order is not restored in the next few days, the military leadership – despite the rivalries in its ranks – will be under great pressure to join civilian leaders in trying to persuade him to step down.

If Mr. Suharto were to resign, the Indonesian constitution makes it clear that he would be succeeded automatically by his recently elected vice president, B.J. Habibie. But the succession of Mr. Habibie might only take the power struggle into a second round. He has few supporters in the armed forces and was opposed by most leaders of the majority party, Golkar, when his candidacy was imposed by Mr. Suharto before the election in March.

It is likely that Parliament would call a special session of the 1,000-member People's Consultative Assembly, which elects the president and vice president, to replace Mr. Habibie by constitutional means. The military would exercise enormous influence on the choice.

Whoever emerges as the new president, one thing is clear. The new leader, military or civilian, will need the backing of the armed forces, which will continue to play a decisive role in Indonesian politics.