Indonesians battle police over ousted pro-democracy leader

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The Independent Online
There was rioting in the streets of Jakarta yesterday after Indon- esian police stormed the occupied headquarters of the pro- democracy Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in support of the ousted PDI leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, in the worst civil unrest in 30 years.

The violence began after dawn when hundreds of riot police arrived at the PDI headquarters in central Jakarta. They were accompanied by 200 stone-throwing civilians, who wore T-shirts claiming allegiance to Suryadi, a rival claimant to leadership of the PDI, but witnesses claimed that they were plain-clothed members of the security forces.

After an exchange of stones and petrol bombs, police moved into the compound and fought with Mrs Megawati's supporters, some of whom were armed with batons. About 20 people, several of them bleeding and unconscious, were carried out and taken to the military hospital in police vehicles. A car and bus were set alight and about 200 people were arrested.

The streets around the headquarters were sealed off, but by 11am thousands of people were pressing up against the police cordons. Groups of protesters chanted "Long live Megawati", "Megawati or death", and "army murderers". There were sporadic outbreaks of stone-throwing, but other members of the crowd called for order.

At her home in southern Jakarta last night, Mrs Megawati appeared shaken at the turn of events. "I feel so sorry for the victims whom I cannot see," she told The Independent on Sunday. "I am advised by my people not to leave this house because the situation is out of control."

By late afternoon there were reports of escalating riots in several parts of the city, as demonstrators set fire to army offices and several other buildings in central Jakarta. They clashed with troops backed by armoured cars equipped with cannon and vehicles firing red-dyed, stinging water.

As dusk fell, witnesses said soldiers and marines baton-charged what appeared to be the last major concentration of rioters outside the University of Indonesia.

The day's events represent a dangerous escalation in what began a month ago as a squabble over the leadership of the PDI. Under the leadership of President Suharto, Indonesian politics has been dominated for 30 years by the Golkar ruling faction. Two other parties, the Muslim PPP and the PDI, are allowed to exist only under strict government control. In June, at a government-sponsored congress, the incumbent leader, Mrs Megawati, was replaced by Mr Suryadi.

Mrs Megawati is the daughter of the former president Sukarno and a popular figure throughout the country. In ousting her from the PDI leadership, the government provoked widespread protest. On 20 June, 75 people were injured when a demonstration in Jakarta was broken up by police. Since then the PDI headquarters have been occupied by Megawati loyalists.

Mrs Megawati has always maintained that her only goal is to take her legitimate place as the leader of the PDI, but in a country which places strict control on freedom of expression, her protest has become the focus of a much wider sense of frustration.

"A political party in Indonesia is a government franchise, and they have taken back the franchise and given it to someone else," said Laksamana Sukardi, the treasurer of the PDI. "It's a fake democracy - in the eyes of foreigners it looks like multi-party democracy, but the government interferes in everything. Megawati is the first democratically elected party leader in Indonesia. The people put their hopes on her. In 30 years Indonesians haven't been able to find a single person they feel comfortable with to stand up for them. That's what scares the government."

The stakes were raised dramatically last Monday when a commander in the Indonesian army likened Megawati's supporters to Communists. Half a million people died in anti-Communist purges in the 1960s, and his comments were taken as an indication that the government will take a firm line against dissenters.

Yesterday's events come at a time of unusual tension and uncertainty in Indonesia, amid growing doubts about the future of 75-year-old President Suharto, who is increasingly isolated. In April, Tien Suharto, his wife of nearly 50 years, and closest confidante, died; a few weeks later he underwent medical tests in Germany. Despite being given a clean bill of health the stock exchange has been affected by persistent rumours about his well-being.

Mrs Megawati was defiant last night. "Suryadi is responsible for this," she said. "Earlier we called on the government to keep the status quo until the court decides the outcome of this dispute.

"The whole thing is out of control, but I believe that it's not just PDI people who are doing this in support of me, but everyone who is unhappy with the government."