These riots and killings show why I wanted to sell tanks to Suharto

Richard Needham, ex-trade minister, explains why he watched the burning of Jakarta with such sorrow
Click to follow
I have a long attachment to Indonesia. My wife spent much of her childhood there and my parents-in-law lived and worked there for over thirty years. My children were brought up by Indonesians and we looked after an Indonesian boy. I have an Indonesian godson.

I have been visiting Indonesia for over 20 years, and since leaving politics I have become involved with several British companies who either have investments there or wish to develop the market.

These were the reasons why, last Thursday, I found myself watching from the 21st floor of Jakarta's Mandarin Oriental Hotel as the City was put to the torch and with it the dreams of 200 million people.

Ever since 1965 when Sukarno was overthrown, I had hesitantly, then with increasing conviction, believed that Indonesia would become the foremost of Asian Tigers. As Minister of Trade I had raised Indonesia's profile as a country to invest in. Even the careful, canny Marks and Spencer had set up shop.

Of course, in a nation so huge and so poor there were always bound to be doubts. The anti-Chinese riots in 1965, the massacre of 500,000 so- called Indonesian Communists and Indonesia's behaviour in East Timor showed how quickly violence and ethnic division could erupt. One of the grounds on which I had argued as trade Minister for the supply of Scorpion tanks was that, at some time, they might be required to protect the Chinese community - an argument that would no doubt have fallen on Robin Cook's deaf ears.

At first light last Friday, as the fountain's played and the neon signs winked, the Scorpion tanks rolled in Glodok, Jakarta's Chinatown, but as with everything that has happened in Indonesia recently, they were too late. Glodok had been destroyed, and the Chinese community on whom so much of Indonesia's success and wealth relies, were heading in their thousands for Sukarno Hatta airport.

The previous evening we had driven round the city. It was surreal. Some buildings were aglow with floodlighting and advertising. The President's Palace awaiting his return, its balcony strung with huge, lighted Louis XVI chandeliers, was surrounded by a ring of tanks.

Nearby pathetic knots of the well-to-do were manning pathetic barricades across well-to-do streets, anxiously waiting for the gangs to return. Neighbourhood Watch was not designed to cope with civil war. In Glodok there was the dreadful smell of deathly incineration, at every intersection groups of soldiers were huddled beside their shields and rifles.

The centre of one of Asia's greatest cities had become a desert. The looters were enjoying their loot, the rest had fled. For many that afternoon, it had taken three to four hours to drive home. A friend living in an apartment over a brand new shopping centre had watched terrified as boutiques, jewellers and a food hall were ransacked and burnt immediately beneath him and his family. They had no alternative but to barricade the lifts and stairways and pray that the fires would not engulf them.

On Thursday morning one of the most sensible and senior government officials told me, as the first black puffs of smoke spread across the skyline, that the government had fiddled for eight months. They had been concentrating on what would happen after the March elections and had been unable to agree on anything political or economic. Now, he reckoned, they would have to do in a year what they had a year previously planned to do in ten.

He believed that if most of the students' demands were not met by May 20, Indonesia's National Awakening Day, then revolution was inevitable. His message may have been codes, but is was clear. The canny tactician, the father of the nation, the soldier who built Indonesia after the mayhem of the Sukarno years had to go.

Javanese culture is paternal. Bapak Suharto has long been the father of his people. Even the excesses of his children could be tolerated as long as the lot of the majority was improving. But now almost everyone I met claimed that he must take the responsibility for the catastrophe. Businessmen privately point to the bumbling and fumbling over the IMF packages, to the ludicrous appointments in his new government, to the incompetence and corruption of his administration. Since the death of his wife his touch seems to have deserted him.

Last week Bapak's soldiers shot dead six students at the country's most prestigious Christian University, which has large numbers of Chinese students. For the university there can now be no way back for a leader whose sole authority rests on a paternal autocracy and whose army has killed their pupils.

Suharto's reputation rested on the tough five star general whose security forces would provide law and order in an emergency. Last week that myth exploded. One foreign diplomat told me how frightened, poorly trained, poorly officered policemen stood back as anarchy took root.

There appeared to be no adequate command and control system between the army and the police. There was even less evidence, he said, of any co- ordination with the civil authorities. Terrified commuters sat in traffic jams while the rabble smashed their windscreens and demanded money. It was a shambles and Bapak was in Cairo.

Indonesians can now see the chasm. politics and economics have merged into a vicious downward spiral. The banks and most private companies are bankrupt. Very few employers can pay wages or find funds for raw materials. Inflation is in double digits, and rising. Millions are being made unemployed. There is no safety net and savings are disappearing. Rice may be cheap but other basic foods are often imported. The currency has collapsed.

What can be done? Some I spoke to see a narrow window that could be squeezed through. A number of experienced and senior politicians supported by a sympathetic military, could force a meeting of the National Assembly. The Assembly would authorise a National Provisional Government, which would bring in some of the main opposition leaders alongside existing tried and managerially tested ministers.

The new administration would have two objectives: to prepare for open and free elections within a year, and to negotiate a new economic package with the IMF that would free up the economy by forcing through a rescheduling of the $64bn of private debt. If incautious banks, both domestic and foreign, lose most of their money so be it. The flight of funds and people has to be halted and reversed. Every Indonesian eye is now on their president. He has until tomorrow, National Awakening Day, to divert the deluge.

All the West can do now is to send a simple message to the millions of young Indonesians who have escaped the misery of the kampongs to make new lives in the cities but who now confront a return to the deprivations and disease that has scarred the East Indies for centuries. Generasi muda Indonesia, dunia tidak akan melupakan mu. (Youth of Indonesia, the world will not abandon you).

Sir Richard Needham was Minister of Trade between 1992 and 1995.