Protests mar Indonesia's fresh start

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The Independent Online
IN AN atmosphere of political tension and amid sporadic outbreaks of violence, the Indonesian parliament met yesterday for a special sitting intended to prepare the way for democratic elections and dismantling the oppressive apparatus of former President Suharto.

A senior member of Indonesia's ruling party said that the country's armed forces must give up the unelected parliamentary seats that they have held for the past 30 years. But the continuing power of the military was obvious as thousands of troops surrounded the national parliament building.

The 1,000 members of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) were meeting for the first time since last May when riots and demonstrations forced Mr Suharto to resign after 32 years in power. In several parts of Jakarta there were outbreaks of scuffling and stone- throwing, as crowds of angry protesters confronted bands of civilian thugs, tens of thousands of whom have been allowed into Jakarta to "keep order" during the four-day parliamentary session.

Some 30,000 troops have been deployed, supported by warships and a submarine off the coast, in the biggest show of military force since May.

But even as the military was flexing its muscles, MPR legislators were promising to reduce the armed forces' powerful role in politics. "Now is the time to make it clear that as of this special assembly, the social and political role of the armed forces is a temporary one," said Marzuki Darusman, the parliamentary leader of Suharto's ruling party, Golkar.

More than 1,000 of the pro-government "volunteers", who have mysteriously streamed into Jakarta in the days leading up to the assembly, were trapped in a park in central Jakarta by a crowd of locals who pelted them with stones and waved banknotes, tauntingly suggesting that they had been paid to turn out. "They are not true Muslims! They are mercenary lackeys and they are just here to cause trouble," screamed one man. The "volunteers" were eventually escorted away by the army, which is often accused of mobilising civilian thugs to intimidate its opponents.

The MPR faces an overwhelming task, made all the more difficult by the widespread cynicism and contempt with which it is viewed. Technically, the MPR is the country's most powerful political institution, responsible for electing the president and setting the guidelines for national policy. In practice, it has always been regarded as a poodle of Suharto, who appointed its members, set its agenda and used it to legitimise a thinly disguised dictatorship.

"The problem with Indonesia today," as The Jakarta Post put it in an editorial this week, "is that is still depends on the MPR, a body filled with reactionary advocates of the status quo who do not represent the majority."

But many MPR members have spent the past six months busily distancing themselves from the old regime. "We are fully aware that our credibility is now down in the gutter," added Mr Darusman. "This has forced us to go all out to embrace the people's aspirations."