Shots in the Dark

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NISID HAJARIYoung Indonesia teethed on chaos. After bloodily evicting the Dutch in 1949, Indonesians of differing ideological stripes quickly launched into a frenzy of partisan debate at factories, universities, plantations--in, as one historian put it, a kind of permanent, round-the-clock politics. In the next decade secessionist rebels waged war on Jakarta, itself teeming with radical Muslims, Communists and soldiers. Sukarno's successor Suharto, having imposed a New Order, liked to wield the memory of those fraught years as justification for his punishing rule.Suharto has relinquished power now, and chaos has returned to the broad streets of his capital. Throughout last week, student-led marchers in Jakarta clashed with riot troops assigned to protect a special session of the nation's highest constitutional body, the People's Consultative Assembly (known by its Indonesian acronym, MPR). On Friday night the run-ins exploded into a full-fledged battle, with soldiers chasing and shooting protesters with rubber bullets at close range. By dawn at least a dozen civilians had been killed; more than 200 were reported wounded. At the eerily calm Parliament building, where loops of razor wire and thousands of soldiers and police sealed off the MPR, legislators passed 12 toothless decrees that only glancingly acknowledged the students' demands. Mere blocks away, where blood and tear-gas canisters littered Jakarta's main thoroughfare, the divisions of the past had fast been reduced to one--between a government and its people.PAGE 1  |    |    |    |  
 
That bitter divide will not be healed easily. Since the fall of his mentor in May, President B.J. Habibie has survived on the instability of the forces jockeying for a place in the new Indonesia--pro-democracy leaders, Muslim activists, students and the armed forces. If events spiral out of control--and by Saturday evening, with protests reported in at least five other cities, that seemed likely--few of those ambitious factions can be counted on to come to his aid. Pundits may debate whether Habibie will be forced to give way to martial law and a military junta led by armed-forces chief General Wiranto, or to a more progressive coalition of opposition figures like Amien Rais and Megawati Sukarnoputri. What's certain, however, is that the contest over reform in Indonesia has been irrevocably radicalized. The idea of revolutionary change has spread among the students, says a Western diplomat in Jakarta. Now they shout revolusi rather than reformasi.Authorities have only themselves to blame for that transformation. Determined to prevent any disruption of the MPR, which opened its four-day special session on Tuesday, military brass turned Jakarta into an armed camp. Troops blocked off key intersections as well as the Parliament building--ground zero for the protests that toppled Suharto in May. (Warships and even a submarine prowled inexplicably in the harbor.) More ominously, an additional 125,000 civilian volunteers--thugs hired mostly from Indonesia's fiery Muslim youth groups--fanned out across the city to intimidate the opposition. Hasan Dahlan, an auto mechanic from the suburb of Tebet in South Jakarta, recalls how a pair of strangers canvassed the run-down neighborhood two weeks earlier, offering 20,000 rupiah (about $2.50) for each volunteer. I may be poor, but I don't want to die for 20,000 rupiah, says Dahlan, who scorned the offer.  |  2  |    |    |  
 
Unfortunately, many would take such a risk in these desperate times, and the combination of poverty and frustration brought to a boil by last week's assembly proved a simple recipe for disaster. The patience preached by both state and opposition leaders quickly wore thin. On Wednesday afternoon a car allegedly driven by a University of Indonesia student plowed into a group of riot police, injuring nine; on Thursday soldiers fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse a crowd of 20,000 that had throttled Jakarta's main north-south artery on its way to the Parliament building. By Friday a throng that had swelled to over 30,000 poured onto the massive Jalan Sudirman, facing off against a line of tanks and troops from the army's kostrad strategic reserve command. With each charge the crowd dispersed, then regrouped in smaller numbers. Private security guards protecting nearby office buildings--empty since workers had been sent home early the day before--sprayed water to dilute the tear gas and opened their doors to fleeing students.The viciousness of the military response hardened attitudes. They told us to run, and then they shot at us, seethed a young woman outside the emergency ward at Jakarta Navy Hospital. Elsewhere in the same hospital, 39 people lay wounded, mostly by rubber bullets; all had cowered in the basement of the same building until soldiers burst in, savagely beating them with heavy wooden batons before spraying the room with gunfire. At Atma Jaya University, where thousands of students had taken refuge, army reinforcements driving past on trucks opened fire through the gates. (According to volunteer medics, at least three students bore wounds caused by live ammunition.) Damn this country! muttered one student as he tied a wet towel around his face to ward off the tear gas, voicing the hurt and fear that spread throughout the shaken city. In a neighborhood bordering Jalan Sudirman, a distraught resident raised the central, bitter question: If the military is so brave, why don't they fight other countries--why do they attack the people?Members of the armed forces may now be asking themselves the same question. In the heat of battle, kostrad and the police were pelted with rocks and bottles, but--as happened during many of the May riots--the crowd cheered the arrival of the marines. By Saturday, as tens of thousands of protesters headed for the Parliament building, at least 80 uniformed marines marched with them. Rumors that the military had turned upon itself proved premature. But the armed forces have only grown more tentative in the months since Suharto's downfall, as revelations about their grim human rights record continue to emerge. Any split, however fragile, will only prolong the tumult and uncertainty now gripping Jakarta.   |    |  3  |    |  
 
So will the camaraderie that has arisen between students and the typically less political citizenry. On Friday a crowd of local residents at first threw stones at Atma Jaya students before being halted by their comrades, who shouted, Don't spoil their struggle! This is our struggle, too! In at least two other locations in the city, groups composed mostly of residents themselves battled riot police and soldiers. I'm offended that we--the poor--are always used for other people's political ends, says Edi Sumaryono, another slumdweller who resisted the vigilantes. We support the students. We want what they want! That newfound alliance clearly worries authorities: earlier in the week, after a crowd chased a gang of vigilantes out of their neighborhood, the police said they would be disarmed and removed from the capital. (Wiranto overrode the plan, and they remained.) The alignment now also divides the populace from many of the established figures who claim to speak for them. Who on earth believes politicians anymore? railed Supriyadi, a taxi driver trapped for hours by one loud demonstration. Opposition leaders shouldn't have only told the vigilantes to go home, they should have done the same thing with those people at the parliament building. Tell them to go home too!Such sentiments do not bode well for a moderate resolution to the crisis. The opposition figures many Indonesians would like to see heading a presidium that would take over immediately from Habibie--Megawati, Muslim leaders Rais and Abdurrahman Wahid (known as Gus Dur), and the Sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwono X--issued a joint statement on Tuesday afternoon pledging conditional support for the President until elections next year. On Saturday, Rais, Wahid and Megawati all condemned the previous night's violence. But Rais, who also called for Wiranto to resign, continued to distance himself from the students' demands. Under no circumstance could a power takeover be justified, because it is against the demands of reform and democracy, he declared on a local television station. Between them, the Wahid-aligned National Awakening Party (PKB) and Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) are expected to win at least 40% of the votes in any election. Wahid has vowed to support Megawati for the presidency unless he runs himself. Both Rais and Hamengkubuwono also harbor presidential ambitions. All four thus have good reason to be leery of taking over the helm of an Indonesia convulsed by civil strife.Nor do members of the current assembly seem capable of holding things steady. The 1,000 MPR members are well aware of the tenuousness of their positions: 500 of them were appointed by Suharto or Habibie, 75 by the military; the remaining 425 won their seats in tightly controlled 1997 elections. Early in the week debates were marked by a frankness unthinkable in the Suharto years, as even members of the ruling Golkar party inveighed against the former strongman's excesses and the military's involvement in politics. Insulated within the heavily fortified Parliament building, however, legislators proved sublimely oblivious to the tumult raging outside. Golkar leaders stopped short of apologizing for their role in propping up the New Order--and of agreeing to any of the students' demands. By the time Habibie closed the session on Friday night, the assembly's most noteworthy decrees pledged only to reduce the military's allotment of seats gradually, to limit the President to two terms of office, to hold elections next May or June, and to investigate corruption (after fierce argument, the MPR declined to pass a decree focusing specifically on Suharto). These vague, half-hearted measures sorely misjudged the mood of the crowds that fought pitched battles only a few kilometers away. Besides, events were moving too fast: although he had arrived at Parliament--through the rear entrance--in a motorcade, Habibie left only an hour later by navy helicopter.  |    |    |  4  |  
 
The President seems perhaps the least prepared to confront the chaos. In his assembly speech, he regretted the deaths of student victims of the reform process, and stumbled over certain words (including, curiously, the Bahasa word for honest). But the trademark grin had not left his face. That there is a lot of skepticism [about the reforms] is a reflection of the fact that a lot of people don't like Habibie, full stop, concedes the President's spokeswoman, Dewi Fortuna Anwar. What last week's demonstrations make abundantly clear is that Indonesians have neither forgotten nor forgiven their leaders' membership in the ancien regime. They demand a truly clean slate, which means that even if Habibie survives until elections, Golkar will probably drop him as its presidential candidate. Like Suharto at the end of his towering rule, Habibie may find that the only popular move left to him is resignation.Few expect him to surrender easily. Yet, even if troops manage to quell the protests, Habibie and Indonesia face months of steadily escalating tensions. Even before the MPR had completed its maligned session, parties had begun to campaign for votes in next year's elections. In January the parliament--the elected half of the MPR--will debate a new electoral law: the draft currently under consideration would abolish most of the electoral restrictions imposed by Suharto, freeing up more than 100 political parties to fight for the votes of 104 million eligible Indonesians. (It would also reduce the number of seats allotted to the military to 55.) Given the bloodshed that accompanied even the stage-managed exercises in democracy put on under the New Order, few expect a peaceful run-up to truly free polls.Voters, too, will only grow more radical. As poverty and despair continue to spread throughout the archipelago, the ranks of those with nothing to lose will likely swell to dangerous proportions. People are playing parlor games here in Jakarta. No one is really speaking for the people out there, says the Western diplomat. This is the Jacobin revolution which we haven't seen yet. This is the dangerous part. It's going to be bloody. For an Indonesia that has already seen too much violence this year, last week's excesses may soon seem like child's play.Reported by David Liebhold, Zamira Loebis and Lisa Rose Weaver/Jakarta  |    |    |    |  5