The riots were triggered by a police raid on the offices of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) but tension had been mounting for months as generals and civilians in the government faced up to a dilemma: who will succeed Mr Suharto
At 75 and after 30 years of unquestioned power, he is looking more and more like a man who has passed his political sell-by date. Recently widowed, and dogged by rumours about his health, he has alienated businessmen, aides and ordinary Indonesians by granting tax breaks to members of his immediate family. "Most people in the government think he's lost his touch," said a Western diplomat yesterday. "He's looking old and he no longer has the power to inflame his people - they just don't believe the rhetoric any more."
But if the prospect of an ailing, faltering president is unappetising, the alternative is uncertainty. Mr Suharto seized power from his predecessor, Sukarno, after a creeping military coup in which 500,000 people died in anti-Communist pogroms. Contemporary Indonesians have never witnessed a peaceful transfer of power and no one in Jakarta seems to have any idea of who might credibly take over.
Part of the problem is Mr Suharto's habit of appointing as his closest aides weak men who have never been allowed to remain in power long enough to establish themselves. Constitutionally, the succession would fall to the Vice-President, Try Sutrisno, a colourless figure who may yet turn out to be just what the country needs to tide it over the transitional period after Suharto's demise. But the forces threatening to drive Indonesia apart will require a stronger presence to keep them under control.
This is where Megawati Sukarnoputri came in - as daughter of Sukarno and the popular leader of one of only two officially recognised opposition parties, she was being spoken of as a possible successor to Mr Suharto in elections in 1998. The order to depose her as PDI leader is believed to have come from Mr Suharto. But the rigged party congress in June, when she was unseated in favour of a puppet figure, was largely the work of Abri, the armed forces.
Last Saturday, as thousands of Jakartans took to the streets, the plan appeared to have misfired. But in a week Abri has reasserted its authority with a combination of coolness and hysteria which appears, for the short term at least, to have defused the situation.
The full details of what happened may never be known but the military appear to have acted with discipline, if not restraint. Hundreds of people were injured and dozens are missing but, despite rumours about massacres and "disappearances", there is conclusive evidence of only three deaths.
The hysteria came in the middle of the week when Abri, without offering evidence, said the riots were the work of Communist insurgents. Since then the security forces have carried out a wave of arrests in what is looking increasingly like a general crackdown on peaceful critics of the government. On Tuesday night Muchtar Pakpahan, an independent trade-union leader, was arrested and charged with subversion.
Mr Suharto has given permission for police to question MPs, including Ms Megawati and seven members of her PDI faction.Reuse content