Indonesia Crisis: Rise and rise of the man who would be king

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The Independent Online
IN THE six days since riots and demonstrations in Jakarta turned into something close to a popular uprising, Indonesians have crossed many thresholds. One of the most striking occurred two days ago in a chamber of the House of Representatives. The room contains only one item of colour: the golden Garuda, or mythical eagle, of the Republic of Indonesia, flanked on one side by a stern portrait of the president.

A man in traditional head-dress was speaking about his travels around the archipelago. "I have ... come to one conclusion," he said, pointing at the photograph. "He has to go, and the sooner the better." The students present cheered; the politicians looked grave.

It is a crime to "insult" the president. Nobody had publicly jabbed their finger at his image, hanging in the toy parliament the President created for himself. Only one man could make such a gesture, and if Indonesia does rise up again today it will in large part be the responsibility of the same man.

Amien Rais, 54, the political scientist who has become Indonesia's only credible opposition leader, has promised to bring 1 million people on to the streets of the capital today. Even if he enlists a small fraction of that, it will be more difficult than ever to imagine President Suharto's 32 years in power lasting much longer.

Dr Rais's principal power- base has been Islam. As leader of Muhammadiyah, a social and religious organisation, he commands the loyalty of its 28 million members. In the past year he has widened his appeal by a simple means: almost alone of Indonesia's most prominent opposition figures, he has directly criticised Mr Suharto.

Dr Rais has not demonised Mr Suharto; this week he said it would be important to let him leave office without humiliation. But his forthright talk has plumbed a well of hatred. Slogans calling for Mr Suharto to be prosecuted and hanged, images of him as Hitler, have become stock in trade among student demonstrators.

During his speech Dr Rais presented what few of his fellow dissidents have managed to do - a step-by-step programme of reform. The student demonstrators know what they don't like about Mr Suharto.

It is encapsulated in their slogan "Corruption, collusion and nepotism". But Dr Rais speaks in detail about positive moves to strengthen the judiciary and abolish political patronage.

Dr Rais is a post-graduate of two US universities and has acquired a command of English that few Indonesians possess. Unlike the oblique Mr Suharto, he is straightforward about his ambitions. He said yesterday: "Yes, I am more than willing to replace him."

But two things make it hard to imagine a President Rais. One is the military, which still wields more collective power than any single opposition figure. The second is his personality. He is respected but not loved: Christians and other minority religions fear him as an Islamic populist. It is the bad luck of Indonesians that even the bravest among them cannot entirely be trusted.