The President was due to fly into Jakarta this morning, after reports in Indonesian newspapers that he will step down if he no longer had the "trust" of his people.
"If I am no longer trusted I will become a sage, and endeavour to get close to God," he was quoted as saying during a state visit to Egypt which was cut short by the escalating disturbances. "I will spend my time guiding my children so they become good people, guide the community and give advice."
President Suharto has in the past made similar statements, and his remarks were downplayed by his foreign minister, Ali Alatas. But in the President's absence there appeared to be a vacuum of power in the world's fourth biggest nation, as mobs of looters sacked large areas of the city unchecked by police or army.
Tanks and armoured cars were seen driving through the centre of town last night, and the Jakarta military commander, Major General Syafrie Syamsudin promised to "face rioters and looters firmly".
Potential successors to the President - including senior generals and opposition figures - made no public statements about the political situation and appeared to be biding their time. "The situation is going to improve," said General Wiranto, the chief of the armed forces. "Please believe in the military."
What began three days ago as a peaceful student demonstration has transformed itself in the past 48 hours into something that defies easy categorisation - part political protest, part pillage and part ethnic pogrom. Jakarta has been tense since Tuesday night when six students were shot dead by police breaking up a demonstration at a private university. On Wednesday, mobs of ordinary Jakartans rampaged along two streets adjoining the campus. Yesterday, after a night in which at least 11 people were burned alive after mobs set their homes alight, the anarchy spread throughout the city.
For miles the streets of Jakarta look like the set of a disaster film. Hundreds of shops, houses, public buildings, police stations, hotels, shopping centres and markets were burned. Among them were a Heineken beer brewery, the home of Liem Sioe Liong, one of Indonesia's richest men and a close friend of President Suharto, and the headquarters of the social affairs ministry which is run by the president's daughter, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana.
Shops and businesses closed down in most parts of central Jakarta. The toll road to the airport was closed, stranding many passengers in their hotels, and many outbound flights were filled up with retreating ex-patriates and ethnic Chinese Indonesians who are often scapegoated in times of unrest.
The Indonesian currency, the rupiah, whose collapse last summer set off economic turmoil throughout the country, fell steeply, further jeopardising the programme of economic reform and recovery agreed between the government and the International Monetary Fund.
By mid-morning yesterday, Gajah Mada Street, a main road linking central Jakarta with Chinatown and the docks to the north was empty of motorists as the looters set to work. Just before noon, a squadron of 30 helmeted troops on motorbikes roared out of the smoke towards the north.
Suddenly, the silhouettes of soldiers became visible firing into the air and taking level aim at people on the streets. Everyone ran for cover, the rounds fired were either blanks or the rubber coated bullets which have claimed several lives this week. But there were confirmed reports of only a handful of deaths or injuries by the end of the day.
By the afternoon, there was hardly a pane of glass left unsmashed. Dozens of cars were burned out or burning. For miles there were no police or soldiers to be seen and in several parts of the city the red-bereted marines, traditionally the favourites of ordinary people, were seen joining hands with looters.
Individual motivation is difficult to fathom, but even the most opportunistic of the rioters explain their actions in political terms. "It's revenge for what the military did to the students," said one man who identified himself as Danny. "Nepotism and corruption," shouted someone else. "The Chinese have debts, and we have to pay them," said another man.
A disproportionate number of the reported dead have been Chinese, and if racist sentiment catches hold among the Muslim majority then a truly dreadful situation looms. But the most vehement abuse was reserved for the President. An 18-year-old woman, Linda Putri, screwed up her face and spat out the words, "I hate Pak [Father] Harto."
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