Indonesia Crisis: Martial law descends on Freedom Square

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JAKARTA was gripped by an atmosphere of undeclared martial law yesterday, after the army threatened Indonesia's leading opposition leader with a repeat of the Tiananmen Square massacre if he pressed on with a mass demonstration in the city centre.

The clampdown, involving 40,000 armed troops, came a day after President Suharto responded to months of protest by promising political reforms.

In a dawn television address yesterday, Amien Rais, the Muslim academic who has become the focus of popular protest against Suharto, cancelled the demonstration which he had called and appealed to his followers to stay at home. "Last night someone told me - who happens to be an army general - that he doesn't care at all if a Tiananmen incident will takes place today in Jakarta," he said. "I was so shocked to hear this."

In the old capital of Yogyakarta, the Sultan of the city led half a million people in a peaceful rally in front of his palace, and another 200,000 protesters staged peaceful demonstrations in other cities. In Jakarta, protests were confined to the parliament building which has been taken over by thousands of university students.

Freedom Square, where the cancelled demonstration was supposed to have taken place, was completely sealed off with barricades of wood and barbed wire. Troops patrolled in Land Rovers, armoured cars, helicopters and tanks were positioned on flyovers, roundabouts, and in front of the big hotels and embassies.

"I don't want anybody to die just to force Suharto to step down," Dr Rais told a press conference later in the day. He admitted the climbdown over the demonstration was "a setback" but insisted the power of the people on the streets could be unleashed again if the President refused to leave in a constitutional manner.

On Tuesday, in an attempt to defuse increasingly vociferous demands for his resignation, the President announced he would leave office after holding national elections, though the date for these polls was not specified.

The protesters are demanding his immediate resignation. At the parliament building, waves of jubilant students flooded in during the day to reinforce their colleagues already in the building.

The leaders of Suharto's own party, Golkar, yesterday repeated their hope that the President will resign voluntarily at a special session of the People's Consultative Assembly. "The President has decided that his legitimacy has declined and cannot be revived," the Indonesian environment minister, Juwono Sudarsono, told The Independent yesterday. "What he wants from the leadership of the armed forces is a dignified exit."

In Jakarta, many protesters are calling for the President to be hanged and were in no mood for compromise. But his aides are talking about the possibility of elections next January, and a new president by March.