Jakarta seethes with rumours of coups, mutinies and riots

Suharto has gone, elections have been promised, but everyone is still on edge, reports Richard Lloyd Parry
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The Independent Online
A GLANCE out of the window was enough to confirm that, after days of rumours, it was finally beginning. Down in Welcome Square, a convoy of slow-moving open vehicles passed by the Hotel Indonesia. Sirens wailed and lights flashed; standing in the trucks were uniformed figures decorated with glittering medals. An ugly-looking crowd shouted slogans in front of the British embassy. To the professional eye, this meant only one thing: exasperated by the performance of the new president, BJ Habibie, the Indonesian military was finally taking matters into its own hands - the Jakarta coup was apparently under way.

Accompanied by fellow representatives of the international media, I grabbed my spectacles and sped out of the hotel, to bear personal witness to this latest unfolding of Indonesia's violent story. And there outside - complete with smiling police motorcyclists, and proud, cheering fans - was the victory parade of the Indonesian badminton team, returning from its triumph in the Thomas Cup.

I am not alone in having had a jumpy week in Jakarta. On Thursday, the country's biggest bank was put under central bank supervision after customers withdrew savings from hundreds of cash dispensers. On Friday, a senior general found himself in the position of having personally to deny rumours that he intended to fight a guerrilla war against the government. Rumour of new riots abound. Ten days after the resignation of President Suharto, Jakarta is in an edgy and unhappy state.

On the face of it, this is surprising, for the past week has brought to Indonesians greater freedoms than the entire 32 years preceding it. Four political prisoners were set free. Elections have been promised, although their timing remains vague. New political parties have been founded, and banned magazines are reappearing. But Jakarta is electric with rumour - about an imminent military coup, mutiny in the army, struggles between generals and civilians. Something quite remarkable is happening here, but nobody can say exactly what it is. Arriving so unexpectedly the new freedoms are mysterious; perhaps that is why Indonesians cannot quite believe or trust in them.

The confusion was illustrated last week with the visit to Jakarta of Derek Fatchett, the British Foreign Office minister. He was the first member of a foreign government to visit post-Suharto Indonesia; in 24 hours he visited jailed political prisoners, opposition leaders, ministers and the new president.

He urged the early release from prison of Xanana Gusmao, the East Timorese resistance leader, and pressed Mr Habibie to announce a timetable for the promised elections. But he was full of praise for the new leader. "I believe President Habibie when he says it's his intention to ... hold elections in 1999," he said. "I am delighted with the progress being made."

A few miles away, outside the Indonesian parliament, protesters unveiled banners calling for "total reform" and demanding that Mr Habibie resign. On the island of Sumatra, nine people were shot and 104 shops were damaged after an anti-government protest turned into rioting.

It is difficult even to find a word for the events of the past two weeks. "Revolution" is wrong - Mr Habibie, for all his tolerance, is one of Mr Suharto's most loyal friends, and his cabinet contains not a single opposition figure. "Uprising" over-dignifies the violence and chaos of the race riots that precipitated the dictator's demise. "People power" is the popular catch-phrase - but the reform is being undertaken not by the people, but by the same institutions and individuals that oppressed them for 32 years.

The optimistic view of Mr Habibie goes something like this. After a lifetime as Mr Suharto's protege, he has begun the only thing that can save Indonesia and his own career: comprehensive, but gradual, reform. Free elections will be held early next year, a democratically elected opposition will sweep to power, the supporters of Mr Suharto will withdraw gracefully, and Mr Habibie will go down in history as the man who steered the world's fourth-largest country from dictatorship to democracy.

But given the vehemence of the student demonstrations and riots that forced out his patron, Mr Habibie has little choice but to talk about reform. His promises so far have lacked all detail - President Suharto's Indonesia, after all, also called itself a democracy. Even if the electoral laws are revised, the lack of any tradition of opposition will play into the hands of the old regime. President Habibie might stand a very good chance of victory himself against a splintered opposition. "We are concerned," wrote the Jakarta Post, "that this will be just a farce to prolong the life of a new status quo."

The greatest source of uncertainty is the one group in Indonesia that Mr Fatchett didn't meet during his flying visit: the country's armed forces. It may be years before we know the military's exact role in the fall of Mr Suharto. A reshuffle of senior officers has seen Lieutenant- General Prabowo Subianto, Mr Suharto's son-in-law, packed off to a regional training college. His rival, the armed forces chief, General Wiranto, has expressed laconic support for Mr Habibie. In the riots, the police and army were spectators, leading to rumours that they colluded in creating the pressure for Mr Suharto to go. But since the deaths of six Jakarta students a fortnight ago, the military has been seen but not heard.

Tucked away in the press pack given out at Mr Fatchett's press conference was a far more realistic assessment of the situation, in the form of advice to British residents in Jakarta. "It is still early days for President Habibie's new cabinet," wrote Mr Fatchett's ambassador in Jakarta, Robin Christopher. "The issue of how long this government will last and whether early elections will be held remains unresolved." Britons were "advised to stay close to home, to avoid crowds, and to follow developments". In other words: watch and wait, like the rest of Indonesia.