Indonesia Crisis: Suharto's offer of reform falls on deaf ears

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The Independent Online
IN A televised speech delivered from his palace, President Suharto attempted yesterday to defuse the protests which have laid waste his capital and have mounted a seemingly irresistible threat to his rule.

Going further than he has ever done in yielding to demands for reform, he announced the formation of a "reform committee" of academics and public figures, and promised parliamentary elections after a revision of political laws. "The general election will be held as soon as possible based on the revised election law," he said. "I here declare that I will not seek to be chosen as presidential candidate again."

Suharto's environment minister, Juwono Sudarsono, said later that the elections would be held within six months, and that there will be a new president by the end of the year. But Suharto's failure personally to set out a timetable did nothing to defuse the atmosphere of angry impatience among student demonstrators and their leaders.

In the national parliament there were tumultuous scenes as some 15,000 students, unhindered by soldiers or police, occupied the buildings and grounds, singing, dancing, drumming, waving flags and chanting slogans demanding the President's immediate resignation. In the debating chamber, a hand-drawn picture of a bleeding Suharto was pinned to the great crest of the Republic of Indonesia, while students jumped up and down on the members' seats, and stood at the podium acting out parodies of leading politicians.

Last night, several hundred students were camping out in the parliament, and all of those questioned rejected the President's promises as a cynical attempt to hold on to power.

"We will stay here every night until our demands are met," said one student in the green blazer of Jakarta's University of Jayabaya. "Suharto must resign immediately, and there must be total reform."

Tens of thousands more are expected to converge on parliament today, although student leaders yesterday indicated that they would not take their protest out on to the streets for fear of provoking violence. Last Tuesday, six demonstrating students at Jakarta's Trisakti University were shot dead by police snipers, triggering two days of riots and looting in which 500 people died and 3,000 buildings and 1,000 cars were destroyed.

But big demonstrations by ordinary Jakartans are expected in other parts of the city, including Jakarta's Freedom Square where the main opposition leader Amien Rais is expected to appear. Dr Rais has promised to bring one million people onto the streets. On Monday, the chief of the Indonesian armed forces (Abri), General Wiranto, hinted that any repeat of last week's violence would be met with military force.

"They were carried by the wave of freedom, and they disturbed the freedom of others," he said. "Abri has the role of stabiliser and safeguard of the constitution and national stability."

Apart from their visible presence on the streets in tanks and armoured cars, the security forces have done almost nothing to interfere with the protests since the Trisakti incident. Any order to use force against peaceful demonstrators would severely test the unity of the military which is suffering a power struggle of its own between General Wiranto and Lieutenant-General Prabowo Subianto, Suharto's son-in-law.

But the prospect of violence has had an electrifying effect on the capital.

In a terse statement, the British Embassy advised all British citizens to leave Jakarta and those who remained to stay indoors today. More than half of the estimated 5,000-strong British community in Indonesia is believed to have left the country. Last night at Jakarta's international airport the departure terminal was under virtual siege by foreigners and ethnic Chinese determined to leave before today's mass demonstrations.

In Chinatown, where some of the worst looting in the capital was seen last week, residents were prepared for the worst. "I am really afraid", said a young Chinatown resident yesterday. "I don't know what will happen to us after the demonstrations".

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