Burning Indonesia waits on Suharto

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ON THURSDAY afternoon, after walking all morning through scenes of almost cartoon-like destruction, I stopped under a palm tree in the main street of Jakarta's Chinatown and tried to record exactly what I could see around me.

In both directions and on each side of the four-lane road there was hardly a single window that had not been smashed, and the streets and pavements bore a silvery carpet of glass. At least two different mobs were breaking into the smashed shops - one group carrying out televisions and another picking through a smashed bakery.

A block away, a dull boom announced the exploding petrol tank of another car. In virtually every direction, wherever a gap was visible between the buildings, columns of black smoke could be seen rising from fires in near and distant parts of the city.

But outside the dozen afflicted areas, there was a tense calm as Jakartans stayed indoors in a self-imposed curfew. Yesterday, and despite serious outbreaks of rioting in the cities of Surabaya, Solo and Yogyakarta, the capital was in a state of uneasy peace.

Indonesia, the guidebooks will tell you, is a "land of contrasts", and never was the cliche more true than last week. Establishing the facts of what happened is difficult enough - last night the best estimate was about 500 dead, and the number was rising all the time. But analysing what it means for Indonesia and predicting what will come next is another job altogether.

The confusion and uncertainty is a physical feature of the streets themselves, and a journey round the city throws up new and contradictory possibilities at every turn. Take the scene in the Welcome Square, the heart of Jakarta and site of the country's most exclusive shopping centre, the German and British embassies, and three five-star hotels.

Light tanks, armoured personnel carriers and open trucks carrying troops parade in convoy. So far, these appear to have been no more than routine redeployments of the estimated 15,000 troops on patrol in the city. But with the country in such disarray, with foreign expatriates and money haemorrhaging from an already sick economy, can it be long before the army steps in to resolve the situation, and the tanks around the roundabout are dispatched towards President Suharto's palace?

Abri, as the Indonesian armed forces are acronymically known, is the most powerful institution in Indonesia, but it is also one of the most opaque. With 299,000 members (not including the 174,000 paramilitary police), many of them with active experience against independence movements in East Timor, Abri's physical supremacy in Indonesia is unchallenged, and in the Welcome Square, where a British-made Alvis tank stands in front of the British embassy, it looks equal to any challenge. But last week in Chinatown, it showed another side of its nature - a popular force painfully divided between loyalty to its Commander-in-Chief and the people in whose name it acts.

Indonesia's economic crisis has hit Abri members and their families as hard as anyone. Last week, Indonesia's marines clasped hands with looters as they politely steered them away from smashed buildings. Factions of the military must surely feel great sympathy with the hardship and frustration that overflowed into last week's violence. But the army has no tradition of military coups - the transition of power in which the then Major General Suharto took over from President Sukarno was a drawn- out business that unfolded seamlessly over several years. And it is has been Mr Suharto's genius to ensure that for all their physical resources, the armed forces are divided amongst themselves.

"My father hasn't liked Suharto for a long time," said Dono, the 30- year-old son of an Abri officer, who stood outside the family home on Friday guarding it with an ornamental sword. "Plenty of others feel the same, but there are still so many in the military who support the President."

Speculation about Mr Suharto's successor centres on two generals: Wiranto, Commander-in- Chief of Abri, and Prabowo Subianto, commander of the strategic command, Kostrad. General Wiranto is a smooth and conciliatory figure. Unlike his predecessor, Feisal Tanjung, who threatened to shoot rioters on sight in 1996, he has done little more than beg Jakartans to behave themselves.

General Prabowo is a much more mysterious and sinister figure - the foreign- educated son of one of Mr Suharto's critics, he speaks of himself as a man of destiny living in an age of decadence. There are diplomats in Jakarta who believe that he engineered an earlier bout of riots in January as a means of scaring the international community into taking action on Indonesia. But both men are proteges of Suharto - General Wiranto as his former adjutant, and General Prabowo as the husband of one of his daughters.

So if action by the military is in the offing, it is unclear what form it will take. Will it involve Mr Suharto's expulsion, or a gradual dwindling of influence like that suffered by Mr Sukarno in 1965? Will the military act alone, or in consort with civilian opposition leaders such as Amien Rais and Megwati Sukarnoputri? Or will the army unite behind the President?

Even if he is on the ropes, there are those in Jakarta who are reluctant to conclude that Mr Suharto is down and out, although the cabinet reshuffle he promised yesterday is unlikely to do much to pacify his country. On Thursday, as his city was burning, he was quoted as saying that "if the people do not trust me, that is no problem" - widely taken as a hint that he would step down voluntarily.

One senior Indonesian official yesterday had a different interpretation. "The Indonesian he used is ambiguous," he said. "You could also take it as meaning that if people do not trust me, then tough luck."