Indonesia Crisis: Tiananmen: the forbidden word

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ALL WEEK, as the tanks and armoured cars have ferried their cargoes of soldiers backwards and forwards around Jakarta, a nagging question has kept coming to mind: what does this scene recall?

A huge and monumental public square; students carrying placards calling for democracy; tanks trundling along broad city streets. It was Amien Rais, the Muslim opposition leader, who put it into words in his dawn television address yesterday as he called off the huge demonstrations scheduled for yesterday. "Last night someone told me - who happens to be an army general - that he doesn't care if a Tiananmen incident takes place today."

Could the army massacre of pro-democracy protesters which took place in Peking's Tiananmen Square in 1989 happen here? Would the Indonesian armed forces fire upon their own people in Jakarta?

The truth is they already have. The current wave of unrest started when six students were shot dead last week by snipers stationed on a flyover after a peaceful demonstration. Since then, the military has shown surprising restraint. Despite the sinister appearance of machines of war on city streets, and the overwhelming presence of 78,000 troops yesterday, the most active duty in which the troops were engaged yesterday was directing the traffic.

In person, the soldiers are friendly and direct. Unlike the police, the Indonesian armed forces, known by the acronym of Abri, is a source of genuine pride to many Indonesians, and Abri's own propaganda emphasises that its members are the servants of the people.

But these are testing times. "I tell my men to be patient and not to be provoked," said one officer, "but I have some hard feelings when I hear the crowd chanting `Hang Suharto'."

After decades of suppression, Abri is the only institution in Indonesia which rivals the power of the president. But, as members of the government admit, it is divided between the commander, General Wiranto, and President Suharto's son-in-law, Lieutenant-General Parbowo.

This rivalry may be dangerous. The most frightening scenario was spelled out by President Suharto himself - further bloodshed, leading to war between factions in a divided army. "They remain two very strong possibilities," said Juwono Sudarsono, a minister with close links to the military.