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Suharto's regime still rules

Ottawa Citizen - May 23, 1998

Jonathan Manthorpe, Jakarta – As Bacharuddin Habibie announced Indonesia's new cabinet Friday, the question became whether former president Suharto had indeed stepped down or merely stepped aside.

The new ministry retained the mark of the old dictator after his appointed replacement failed to shake his association with Suharto and attract any significant new blood to his colors. Suharto was forced to resign Thursday after 32 years in power.

Also yesterday, newly reconfirmed military chief Gen. Wiranto, in a show of firmness, sent troops to the capital's legislature late yesterday to remove occupying students.

The students had taken over parliament to reinforce their demands for political reform and were continuing their protest after Suharto's resignation.

The students allowed themselves to be taken in buses to a nearby university campus but said they will not renounce their campaign.

"Our spirit remains high. We know our fight for reform will be realized," said one.

Mr. Habibie's new cabinet didn't immediately answer the students' demands – 29 of the 36 cabinet ministers are Suharto veterans and only two minor ministers were brought in from opposition parties.

Reaction to the cabinet reinforced the growing belief that Habibie's presidency will soon come under the same pressure that toppled Suharto.

"The composition of the cabinet is quite good," said Frans Seda, a minister in the early years of Suharto's rule and also in the government of his predecessor, President Sukarno. " But it will not be enough for the students and that is the problem. Habibie's credibility is still lacking because he is linked to Suharto and if the students increase their pressure he will face troubled times."

It was significant, though, that General Wiranto retained both the command of the armed forces and the post of minister of defence.

Habibie wanted to remove Gen. Wiranto from the defence minister's post. But Gen. Wiranto, probably the key figure in persuading Suharto to resign, is too important to be dictated to.

Wiranto now stands out more clearly than ever as the only fulcrum of stability in the country of 200 million people wracked by a collapsing economy and political uncertainty.

Mr. Habibie did cleanse the administration of two of the faces from Suharto years which had marked it as corrupt and nepotistic: Suharto's eldest daughter Tutut, who was social affairs minister, and his golfing buddy Bob Hasan, the former trade minister.

But despite hours of negotiation leading to delays in the cabinet announcement, Mr. Habibie failed to attract any significant leaders from the opposition or outside the governing clique into the administration which he billed as a "development and reform cabinet".

In particular, Mr. Habibie was not able to land either Amien Rais, the Muslim scholar who heads the moderate Islamic organization Muhammadiyah, or Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia's founding president who leads the Democratic Party.

Diplomats speculated that credible opposition politicians would be unwilling to join an administration which might only have weeks to survive.

Mr. Rais, who has emerged as the leading opposition figure during the weeks of protest, said he took "a neutral stance" after seeing the cabinet lineup. But he added: "In my opinion the cabinet will not last until 2003," the end of the five-year term Mr. Habibie inherited from Suharto.

Diplomatic analysts and observers said they expect Mr. Rais' opposition to harden in the next few days. The student protestors are expected to take their lead from him.

Opposition may focus on Habibie's failure to mention one of the key demands of the students and other opposition groups – that a firm timetable be set for the free election of a new president and government.

Yesterday afternoon, convoys of coaches crammed with students waving banners demanding constitutional reform began appearing among Jakarta's traffic.

Emil Salim, the former environment minister who now leads the opposition group Gema Madani, said the main task of the Habibie government should be political reform.

"This is a transitional government and in only there to set up new elections. If this requirement is not met within three months, Gema Madani will demand that the MPR (parliament) is called into session to elect a new president and vice-president," Mr. Salim said.

In his speech accompanying the announcement of the cabinet, Mr. Habibie tried to give the impression of leading a new administration with a mandate for political and economic reform.

Mr. Habibie said the focus of his government would be reviving economic development. "We will develop a government which is free and clean from corruption, collusion and nepotism," he said.

Indonesia's economy had been in free fall since July last year when the downturn in Asian economies exposed the rotten underpinnings of the Suharto regime.

The currency, the rupiah, is worth only a fraction of its value nine months ago, inflation is running at 45 per cent and there are widespread food shortages and unemployment.

The International Monetary Fund offered $43 billion US in assistance in return for a massive restructuring program which concentrated on wrenching free the grip the Suharto family has on much of the economy.

Suharto balked at implementing some IMF demands, especially the removal of subsidies on such staple products as fuel and cooking oil.

When these subsidies were removed last week, it led to riots and looting in which at least 500 people died. The deaths and destruction of at least 6,000 shops and stores in the capital were the final blows to the ragged remains of Suharto's reputation.

But Mr. Habibie comes to the presidency ill equipped to restore confidence in the economy, as important an issue in the public mind as political reform.

"He may be a brilliant engineer, but he knows nothing about politics," was the judgement of one Jakarta citizen interviewed on the street yesterday.