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Fall of Suharto

Suharto retired in May 1998 following collapse of support for his three-decade long Presidency of Indonesia.

Dissent under the New Order

Coming to power in 1966 on the heels of an alleged coup by the Indonesian Communist Party, the government of the former general Suharto adopted policies that severely restricted civil liberties and instituted a system of rule that effectively split power within his own Golkar Party and the military.

In 1970, corruption prompted student protests and an investigation by a government commission. Suharto responded by banning student protest, forcing the activists underground. Only token prosecution of cases recommended by the commission was pursued. The pattern of co-opting a few of his more powerful opponents while criminalizing the rest became a hallmark of Suharto's rule.

In order to maintain a veneer of democracy, Suharto made a number of electoral reforms. He stood for election before electoral college votes every five years, beginning in 1973. According to his electoral rules, however, only three parties were allowed to participate in the election: his own Golkar party; the Islamist United Development Party (PPP), and the Democratic Party of Indonesia (PDI). All the previously existing political parties were forced to be part of either the PPP and PDI, with public servants under pressure to join the membership of Golkar. In a political compromise with the powerful military, he banned its members from voting in elections, but set aside 100 seats in the electoral college for their representatives. As a result, he won every election in which he stood, in 1978, 1983, 1988, 1993, and 1998.

This authoritarianism became an issue in the 1980s. On May 5, 1980 a group Petition of Fifty (Petisi 50) demanded greater political freedoms. It was composed of former military men, politicians, academics and students. The Indonesian media suppressed the news and the government placed restrictions on the signatories. After the group's 1984 accusation that Suharto was creating a one-party state, some of its leaders were jailed.

In the same decade, it is believed by many scholars that the Indonesian military split between a nationalist "red and white faction" and an Islamist "green faction." As the 1980s closed, Suharto is said to have been forced to shift his alliances from the former to the latter, leading to the rise of Jusuf Habibie in the 1990s.

After the 1990s brought end of the Cold War, Western concern over communism waned, and Suharto's human rights record came under greater international scrutiny. In 1991, the murder of East Timorese civilians in a Dili cemetery, also known as the "Santa Cruz Massacre", caused American attention to focus on its military relations with the Suharto regime and the question of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. In 1992, this attention resulted in the Congress of the United States passing limitations on IMET assistance to the Indonesian military, over the objections of President George H.W. Bush. In 1993, under President Bill Clinton, the U.S. delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission helped pass a resolution expressing deep concern over Indonesian human rights violations in East Timor.

Cracks emerge

In 1996 the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), a legal party that had traditionally propped up the regime changed direction, and began to assert its independence under the daughter of the popular father of the nation Sukarno, Megawati Sukarnoputri. In response, Suharto attempted to foster a split over the leadership of PDI, backing a co-opted faction loyal to deputy speaker of Parliament Suryadi against supporters of "Mega."

After the Suryadi faction announced a party congress to sack Megawati would be held in Medan June 20 - 22, Megawati proclaimed that her supporters would hold demonstrations in protest. The Suryadi faction went through with its sacking of Megawati, and the demonstrations manifested themselves throughout Indonesia. This led to several confrontations on the streets between protesters and security forces, and recriminations over the violence. The protests culminated in the military allowing Megawati's supporters to take over PDI headquarters in Jakarta, with a pledge of no further demonstrations.

Suharto allowed the occupation of PDI headquarters to go on for almost a month, as attentions were also on Jakarta due to a set of high-profile ASEAN meetings scheduled to take place there. Capitalizing on this, Megawati supporters organized "democracy forums" with several speakers at the site. On July 26, officers of the military, Suryadi, and Suharto openly aired their disgust with the forums. (Aspinall 1996)

On July 27, police, soldiers, and persons claiming to be Suryadi supporters stormed the headquarters. Several Megawati supporters were killed, and over two-hundred arrested and tried under the Anti-Subversion and Hate-spreading laws. The day would become known as "Black Saturday" and mark the beginning of a renewed crackdown by the New Order government against supporters of democracy, now called the "Reformasi" or Reformation. (Amnesty International 1996)

Demonstrations and riots

In 1997 and 1998 there were riots in various parts of Indonesia. Sometimes these riots were aimed against the Chinese-Indonesians. Some riots looked spontaneous and some looked as if they had been planned. One theory was that pro-Suharto generals were trying to weaken the forces of democracy by increasing the divisions between the orthodox and the non-orthodox Muslims, between the Muslims and the Christians and between the Chinese and the non-Chinese. Another theory was that certain generals were trying to topple Suharto.

Student demonstrations

At the start of May 1998, students were holding peaceful demonstrations on university campuses across the country. They were protesting against massive price rises for fuel and energy, and they were demanding that President Suharto should step down.

On May 12th, students at Jakarta's Trisakti University, many of them the children of the elite, planned to march to parliament to present the government with their demands for reform. The police prevented the students from marching. Some time after 5pm, uniformed men on motorcycles appeared on the flyover which overlooks Trisakti. Shots rang out. Four students were killed. At Semanggi nine students were killed (and four more the next year).

Riots of May 13-14

On the 13th of May there were reports of rioting in the area around Trisakti. President Suharto was attending a conference in Egypt and the military top brass went off to Malang in East Java to attend a ceremony. On the 14th of May, serious rioting took place in the Jakarta area. There were no signs of any uniformed soldiers on the streets. The absence of the normally visible military was striking during a time of unrest. Indeed, many human rights organizations take the military's absences as a sign that the riots were endorsed by the government.

Indonesian ethnic Chinese were the main target of the bloody riot, where allegedly Indonesian military members posed as ordinary people attacked their homes and allegedly mass raped the women. The US State Department and many human rights groups have strongly argued that the Indonesian military and police participated and incited the rioting and violence against Sino-Indonesians. Over 1,000 people died during these Jakarta riots, most having died in burning malls and supermarkets but some having been shot or beaten. A government minister spoke of the damage or destruction of 2,479 shop-houses, 1,026 ordinary houses, 1,604 shops, 383 private offices, 65 bank offices, 45 workshops, 40 shopping malls, 13 markets, and 12 hotels.

Alleged involvement of the military in planning the riots

Father Sandyawan Sumardi, a 40-year-old Jesuit priest and son of a police chief, led an independent investigation into the events of May 1998. As a member of the Team of Volunteers for Humanitarian Causes he interviewed people who had witnessed the alleged involvement of the military in organizing the riots and rapes.

A security officer alleged that Kopassus (special forces) officers had ordered the burning down of a bank; a taxi driver reported hearing a man in a military helicopter encouraging people on the ground to carry out looting; shop-owners at a Plaza claimed that, before the riots, military officers tried to extract protection money; a teenager claimed he and thousands of others had been trained as protesters; a street child alleged that Kopassus officers ordered him and his friends to become rioters; there was a report of soldiers being dressed up as students and then taking part in rioting; eyewitnesses spoke of muscular men with short haircuts arriving in military-style trucks and directing attacks on Chinese homes and businesses.

In May 1998, thousands of Indonesian citizens were murdered and raped... ¶ The Joint Fact Finding Team established to inquire into the 1998 massacres found that there were serious and systematic human rights violations throughout Jakarta. The Team also found that rioters were encouraged by the absence of security forces, and that the military had played a role in the violence. The Team identified particular officials who should be held to account.¶ The Special Rapporteur on violence against women... also pointed to evidence suggesting that the riots had been organized (E/CN.4/1999/68/Add.3, para. 45).

American Defence Secretary William Cohen was in Jakarta in January 1998, where he visited both Prabowo and Wiranto. The CIA chief had also been a recent visitor to Jakarta. The CIA and the Pentagon were close to both Prabowo and Wiranto.

Resignation of Suharto

Reportedly the military was split. There was said to be a power struggle between General Wiranto and General Prabowo. Both generals claimed to be loyal to Suharto. Some feared factionalism could lead to a civil war.

Some of Suharto's former allies deserted him. Wiranto allowed students to occupy Parliament. Reportedly Wiranto reported to Suharto on May 20th that Suharto no longer had the support of the army.

Suharto was forced to resign on May 21 and was replaced by Habibie, his Vice President.

In 1998 one of the key generals was Prabowo, son of former Finance Minister Dr. Sumitro Djojohadikusumo who may have once worked with the British and the Americans against Sukarno. Prabowo had learned about terrorism at Fort Bragg and Fort Benning in the US. In May 1998, Prabowo was commander of Kostrad, the strategic reserve, the regiment Suharto commanded when he took power in 1965. Prabowo's friend Muchdi ran Kopassus (special forces) and his friend Sjafrie ran the Jakarta Area Command. General Wiranto, the overall head of the military, was seen as a rival to Prabowo.

Allegedly, late on the evening on May 21st. Prabowo arrived at the presidential palace and demanded that he be made chief of the armed forces. Reportedly, Habibie escaped from the palace. On May 22nd, Prabowo was sacked as head of Kostrad. Wiranto remained as chief of the armed forces. Wiranto's troops began removing the students from the parliament building. President Habibie and General Prabowo

Continued Military Influence

One result of the May riots was that the military appeared to remain the power behind the throne. During a time of widespread fear, the military could claim to offer stability, though it was they who had perhaps help to orchestrate the disorder. In 2004, General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected president.

The Aftermath

Not so often reported were the silent departure of families and wealth from the country. The emigrants were not exclusively of Chinese descents but also include wealthy natives or pribumis and Soeharto’s cronies. The immediate destination has been Singapore, where some stayed permanently while others moved on to Australia, USA and Canada. No specific statistics has been collected, but anecdotal evidences came in as a sudden upsurge of Indonesian restaurants and food stores in cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Los Angeles and Toronto among others.


Further reading

  • Dijk, Kees van. 2001. A country in despair. Indonesia between 1997 and 2000. KITLV Press, Leiden, ISBN 90-6718-160-9

See also

External links

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