So Long, Suharto

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JAKARTA: In the end, it was all about saving face. This concept -- so vital to Indonesia's politics and culture -- was on display when President Suharto went on state television Thursday to beg forgiveness for "any mistakes and shortcomings on my part" during his iron-fisted 32-year rule. Then, as a nation watched, the rice farmer's son stepped aside -- and his successor, Vice-President B.J. Habibie, was immediately sworn in. The message was clear: Continuity, not democracy, is the master here.

"Suharto was backed into a corner," explains TIME Jakarta correspondent Terry McCarthy. "The military went to him and said 'You've got to step down now, before things get worse.'" Safe in the knowledge that the army would protect him from here on, Suharto agreed. Once again, the generals were left to decide the fate of the fourth largest nation on earth.

"Habibie will be a figurehead president," says McCarthy. "The real power will lie in the economic reform council they are establishing." And what about opposition leader Amien Rais, symbol of Indonesia's growing desire for free elections? According to McCarthy, he's sunk: "The army may bring Rais into the council to show they have some pluralism, but elections are not part of their agenda. The army's primary concern is to get the economy working." After all, even generals have faces to save.