World

Living dangerously

Fierce riots threaten Suharto’s hold on power

TOM FENNELL May 25 1998
World

Living dangerously

Fierce riots threaten Suharto’s hold on power

TOM FENNELL May 25 1998

Living dangerously

Fierce riots threaten Suharto’s hold on power

INDONESIA

As his plane prepared to land, President Suharto could see the orange glow from the fires burning below him in the streets of Jakarta. Just hours earlier, protesters—enraged when the Indonesian army shot and killed six rioting students—had gone on a citywide rampage, burning and looting dozens of buildings. The capital’s broad thoroughfares were turned into charred parking lots as roving gangs forced hundreds of drivers out of their cars and torched the vehicles on the spot. Almost 500 people were reported killed, including hundreds who burned to death in shopping mall fires or jumped from burning buildings. The rioters struck directly at Suharto, burning banks and other businesses belonging to his children and friends. The president, who had been on a state visit to Egypt, flew home early to take charge personally. But many analysts believed only his departure from office could end Indonesia’s chaos. “Whether he’s nudged out of power or kicked in the butt, who knows,” said one Western diplomat. “But it’s only a matter of time.”

Just a few months ago, simply mocking Suharto in public could have brought a jail sentence. But his seeming invincibility began to erode last fall when the currencies of Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand collapsed and they were no longer able to meet payments on their foreign debts. The International Monetary Fund stepped in with a $160-billion rescue package. It came with a steep price tag: businesses went bankrupt,

subsidies were cut and thousands of workers were laid off. In Thailand and South Korea, where the governments are democratically elected, people have largely accepted the reforms. But Indonesians, tired of the crony capitalism that has vastly enriched Suharto’s family and friends during his 32 years in power, reacted angrily when prices of gasoline jumped by up to 71 per cent in early May. As protests mounted, a broad cross-section of people, from slum dwellers to segments of Suharto’s own party, joined

efforts to bring him down. The 76-year-old president himself seemed to hint that it may be time to step aside, “if,” he said, “I am no longer trusted by the people.” But his remarks in Cairo were too vague to convince many of his opponents.

Within hours of his arrival back in Jakarta, Suharto attempted to appease the rioters by cutting back the planned gas price increase to 20 per cent. It had little effect. As the army stood by, either unwilling or unable to act, rampaging gangs continued to torch businesses. Much of the destruction was aimed at the country’s ethnic Chinese minority, said to control 75 per cent of the nation’s wealth while forming only about four per

cent of the population. Shops and houses belonging to Chinese were robbed and burned, and hundreds took shelter in the city’s hotels or fled the country. Some scenes were surreal: young men looting a bar called on passers-by to drink a friendly bottle of beer with them, while bank workers threw people bundles of money in the hope they would go away without setting the building on fire.

With the mayhem out of control, foreign governments, including Canada’s, advised their I citizens to get out of the coun| try. There were believed to be ¿ 3,000 Canadians in Indonesia; I 2,100 were registered with the § embassy in Jakarta. Some were ° evacuated with U.S. and Australian citizens. The foreign affairs ministry also planned to charter a plane to help. Dozens of Canadian companies, which have invested nearly $9 billion in the country, primarily in mining, were trying to get their employees out. Many people could not leave because the highways were clogged with burnt cars, and the cab drivers willing to risk driving were charging huge fees.

The jockeying for succession has already begun. A major power struggle could emerge between the civilian opposition and the army. Amien Rais, the outspoken leader of the prominent Muhammadiyah Islamic group, quickly tried to cobble together a coalition of senior opposition figures known as the People’s Council. But he was still trying to win support from Megawati Sukarnoputri, the outspoken daughter of the country’s legendary founder, Sukarno. In the military, armed forces chief Wiranto, and Suharto’s son-in-law Subianto, who heads the army’s elite Strategic Reserves Command, were manoeuvring for power.

The rioting also stymied the IMF reform package. “There has been an implosion of a government,” said Sylvia Ostry, an economist with the University of Toronto’s Centre for International Studies. ‘When there is so much political unrest, it is difficult to undertake reforms.” Analysts feared that if the violence spreads, there could be another round of currency devaluations across Southeast Asia. That would further imperil the repayment of millions of dollars in bank loans issued under the IMF dictates. But Ostry said the IMF will have no choice but to reinforce its reforms. ‘There will be concerted effort to staunch the damage,” she said. So far, the damage is mounting by the day.

TOM FENNELL

JOE LEAHY