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Memory of Suharto nurtures dissent

Chicago Tribune - December 3, 1998

Liz Sly, Jakarta – Indonesia's angry students are more likely these days to shout "Down with Suharto," referring to the autocrat who was forced from office last May as the economy collapsed and unrest surged, than "Down with Habibie," an allusion to the functionary who succeeded him.

The oversight reflects no sudden fondness for President B.J. Habibie on the part of the student demonstrators who brought down Suharto, but rather a growing conviction that it is Suharto who continues to wield the real power.

In recent weeks, the focus of the demonstrations has shifted back to Suharto. The rallying cry for the students now is that Suharto should be held to account for the massive fortune he allegedly accumulated through corrupt practices in the 32 years of his rule.

But the resurgence of anti-Suharto anger goes deeper than a simple desire to see justice done. Six months after he stepped down, Suharto is seen increasingly as the biggest obstacle to genuine democratic reform, while Habibie, six months into his presidency, has failed to convince Indonesians he is his own man.

Thousands of students rallied Wednesday, staging noisy demonstrations at several locations, including the presidential palace and a park near Suharto's home, where the retired president is living a secluded life surrounded by several thousand troops.

Some students, waving crude caricatures of Suharto and carrying banners calling for him to be hanged, some students appeared to have forgotten they already had brought Suharto down.

"The only solution to the problems of Indonesia is the fall of the Suharto regime," said student activist Guspar, 24. "I mean," he added, correcting his mistake, "the puppet Habibie regime, which is backed by Suharto."

As his choice of words underscored, the students who forced Suharto from office last May never accepted Habibie as a credible alternative, which is why they have continue to demand a complete political overhaul. When army troops opened fire on student demonstrators last month, killing 14 people, it seemed only to confirm what they suspected all along: that Habibie shares the same autocratic tendencies as the man he succeeded.

"People had been so relieved that Suharto was gone that they were willing to give Habibie some time," said political analyst Wimar Witoelar. "Not anymore. The honeymoon is over."

But it is Habibie's failure to investigate Suharto's allegedly fabulous wealth that stands out as evidence of Suharto's continued hold over him in the eyes of many ordinary Indonesians.

These days, Suharto is being blamed for most of what is wrong in Indonesia, especially the mounting violence that threatens to erupt into open communal warfare. There is a widespread belief that Suharto is orchestrating the strife, using loyalists within the military, to prevent the emergence of a strong, popularly elected government that might aggressively pursue him in the courts.

"Instability means no one is strong enough to treat Suharto like the presidents of South Korea" who received long sentences for corrupt practices after democracy was established, said military analyst Salim Said. "This isn't a battle he has to win. The fact that a battle is going on means he is already winning."

Whether or not the suspicions are true, Suharto still holds some cards, as he pointedly reminded Habibie in a letter last weekend that was written by his lawyer.

"If Suharto does go to court, it could drag down the government, bringing senior incumbent and former officials – as well as all the cronies suspected of accruing ill-gotten wealth – into messy litigation," warned the letter.

Indonesians interpreted the letter as proof of what they long had believed. "This was to let Indonesians know that Suharto still holds the key to power in the country and that you can't mess with him," said Wilson Nababan, director of Cisi Raya Utama, a business consulting firm that has investigated Suharto's wealth.

As the letter also implied, it would be difficult for Habibie to probe too deeply into Suharto's finances, even if he wanted to. It is believed the corruption of the Suharto era was so pervasive that it touched virtually every ministry and bureaucracy, and most of those now holding office are holdovers from the old regime.

"Suharto is like a loose thread on a sweater," said a Western diplomat "Everyone can see he's a problem, but if you started to pull on the thread, the whole sweater would unravel until eventually the entire country would be naked."

That is one reason that Habibie's pledges so far to investigate Suharto's finances have been met with skepticism. A promised independent commission of inquiry has failed to get off the ground because no one of independent status who has been approached has accepted the request to serve.

The Indonesian Corruption Watch, an independent group, this week criticized the proposed commission as a "cheap political commodity," warning that it could be used for "the money laundering of Suharto's wealth ... ending in his freedom from the threat of the courts."