Indonesia: A Tyrant Falls

People's Struggle Drives Out
the U.S. Butcher Suharto

Revolutionary Worker #959, May 31, 1998

A hated tyrant has fallen in Indonesia. On May 20, the brutal 32-year-long, U.S.-backed rule of Suharto came to an end. After months of student protests which escalated into widespread rebellion, President Suharto was forced to resign. Vice-President B.J. Habibie--who has been one of Suharto's closest ally for 20 years--was immediately sworn in as the new president. And Indonesia's defense minister, General Wiranto, stepped forward to make it clear that the military supports this transition of power.

Suharto had recently been reappointed to a seventh term, scheduled to end in the year 2003. But since last summer, the economic crisis in Indonesia intensified and student protests against the government grew throughout the country. A steady decline in the value of Indonesia's currency resulted in higher prices, a drastic rise in unemployment, and banks and businesses defaulting on foreign loans. The U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in to try to prevent a complete collapse of the Indonesian economy--which would have reverberated throughout East Asia and the world. It came up with a $43 billion bailout for Indonesia. But in exchange, Suharto would have to institute all kinds of economic reforms. The U.S. and other imperialist powers have huge economic interests in Indonesia, and such "reforms" are aimed at creating even more opportunities for foreign investment. And the austerity measures demanded by the IMF mean increased suffering for the Indonesian masses.

After the government announced a rise in fuel prices in mid-May, workers, unemployed youth and others from the bottom of Indonesian society took to the streets, fighting the police and army, setting buildings on fire, and looting. The air over Jakarta filled with smoke as thousands of buildings burned. And for several days, rebellions continued to escalate, especially after government forces shot and killed six students. The people demanded an end to the corrupt Suharto regime and there were increasing signs of splits within the Indonesian ruling class.

As the crisis in Indonesia intensified, the U.S. imperialists became increasingly worried that the struggle against Suharto would grow more militant and would threaten U.S. economic and strategic interests in Indonesia. Behind the scenes the U.S. maneuvered to ensure that the U.S.-trained Indonesian military would keep its hold on power and that any new government would be pro-U.S. and would carry out the economic and political reforms demanded by the U.S./IMF.

Meanwhile the Indonesian military quickly moved in to try to regain control. They began implementing a tactic to let the students continue their demonstrations--but prevent them from being "infected" by the more militant masses and channel their anger into non-threatening forms of protests.

On Monday, May 18, students announced plans to march from the University of Indonesia to parliament buildings in the center of the city. The army said it would not only allow the demonstration but would also provide trucks to transport the students directly to the city center. They wanted to prevent "riotous elements" from joining in. One military commander said, "We have already concluded that we don't want students to take to the streets as we have already felt the results of their street demonstrations. The Jakarta military command is ready to help all components of the community, including students, to channel their aspirations to legislative institutions."

By Tuesday night, over 15,000 students had gathered in and around the Parliament building. They unfurled a banner on the roof calling for Suharto to step down. They camped out in the hallways, talking politics, playing guitars, and singing protest songs, including "We Shall Overcome" in English. Politicians, musicians and poets came to encourage and entertain the protesters. The president was burned in effigy, hung from a gallows, and vilified in banners that said: "Hang Suharto," "Down with Suharto," and "No More Militarism." Some students broke into offices, tore up official papers or turned them into paper planes that were dropped off balconies.

At one point about 200 members of the right-wing, pro-Suharto paramilitary Pancasilla Youth movement showed up, wearing their trademark orange and black camouflage outfits with knives or sticks wedged in their belts. The students booed them and forced them to leave.

A call went out for a huge demonstration for Wednesday, May 20--a national holiday that commemorates the struggle against Dutch colonialism. A million people were expected to march in the streets to demand an end to Suharto's rule. But this was not part of the military's plans for "orderly protest." And the military moved to clamp down on the city and prevent the demonstration. The entire downtown section of the city was sealed off by barbed-wire barricades, and tanks guarded the major routes to key government monuments and the presidential palace. Meanwhile soldiers continued to let more demonstrators enter the parliament compound. But they had set up entrance gates to check school identification cards--only students were allowed in, no potential "rabble rousers" from among the masses!

Amien Rais, a bourgeois opposition figure and head of Indonesia's main Islamic organization, Muhammadiyah, emerged as a main leader among the protesting students. He initially endorsed the call for people to take to the streets on Wednesday. But on Tuesday he emerged from a meeting with the military and, in a sudden turn-around, called on people to cancel the mass rally. The army had convinced Rais to go along with their plan to keep a lid on the protests by telling him that the military was ready for a "Tiananmen-type confrontation."

On Wednesday, tens of thousands of students converged on the Parliament building. News reports said 100,000 armed soldiers and their tanks were positioned throughout the city. They surrounded the Parliament area in force--wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying rifles, tear-gas canisters, gas masks and thick bamboo sticks. They kept the students inside and prevented the thousands of common people who had gathered from joining the students. One young woman in the crowd outside the compound told a reporter that while the students were from elite universities, their demands struck a chord with the people. "This is for poor people like us," she said. Lawyers, doctors, nurses and businessmen also came to show support for the students.

Inside the grounds the students staged a sit-down. But meanwhile, some student leaders were meeting with parliament members--most of them long-time Suharto loyalists. Later in the afternoon, army buses arrived to take the student demonstrators back to their universities. But thousands of students camped out--vowing to stay until Suharto resigned.

Clashes in Other Cities

There were other anti-government demonstrations on Wednesday throughout Indonesia. And the military didn't have as much control in these cities as they did at the Parliament compound in Jakarta. Nearly half a million people rallied in Yogyakarta calling on Suharto to quit. More looting broke out in an area in northern Jakarta. And in Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, students took to the streets and were beaten by soldiers. In Medan, where six students had been killed the week before, thousands of students converged on the provincial Parliament building.

At Airlangga University in Surabaya, soldiers surrounded and pointed their rifles at protesting students. And many demonstrators were injured when two army trucks with barbed wire attached on the front drove straight into the crowd. Soldiers then jumped out and began beating students with batons and rifles, and tanks positioned at either end of the street trapped the students as they ran.

In Semarang, demonstrators forced offices and houses along the route of their march to fly the national flag at half mast to honor the six students killed by security forces. And in the western Javan city of Bandung about 100,000 people, including students, factory workers, laborers, office workers and housewives, rallied in front of the local assembly building, which was decorated with effigies of Suharto being hanged.

A Tyrant Falls

It became clear to the ruling class in Indonesia that the political crisis would only intensify as long as Suharto remained in power. And various political, military, and bourgeois opposition forces quickly tried to maneuver and get in position--to both grab a piece of power and try to keep the growing protests under control.

On Monday, May 18, a group of retired generals, Muslim intellectuals, academics, clerics and others called for Suharto's resignation. On Tuesday, after meeting with nine Islamic leaders, Suharto announced--without saying when-- that he would step down after new legislative elections. But this move was unacceptable to students and other demonstrators. And those in the ruling class knew that Suharto needed to resign right away, if they were to succeed in their efforts to orchestrate an "orderly" transition.

Suharto's own ruling Golkar Party called for his immediate departure, and a joint resignation letter by 14 ministers warned that the country was only one week away from a total financial collapse. Then the speaker of the Indonesian parliament, Harmoko, announced that if Suharto didn't step down by Friday, he would convene an emergency session of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) to pick a new President and Vice President.

A powerful section of the military appeared to be firmly behind this move. When Harmoko made his announcement he was accompanied by the four top military leaders.

But there had also been indications of a split in the military. General Wiranto, whom Suharto installed in the most senior military position just last February, had been making statements in support of the students. Then he announced that the armed forces were calling for the creation of a special reform council, including students and government critics to work together with members of parliament. Meanwhile, it appeared that Suharto's son-in-law, Lieutenant-General Prabowo, who controlled the powerful Army Strategic Reserve, was firmly backing Suharto and his stubborn refusal to step down.

Suharto continued to ignore the calls for him to quit, even after Harmoko, other assembly leaders, and military leaders, including General Wiranto, visited Suharto to try to convince him to step down. But then, finally, late on Wednesday, Suharto announced his resignation.

Suharto Crony and Military in Command

Indonesia's new president, B.J. Habibie, owes his rise to power entirely to his close and long friendship with Suharto. Habibie trained and worked as an aerospace engineer in Germany. Then in the mid-1970s, Suharto asked him to return to Indonesia to build an aircraft industry. Later he went on to head the Indonesian Council of Muslim Intellectuals, a government-approved body set up to build pro-government support among Muslims and prevent Islam from becoming a vehicle for opposition to the government.

Suharto appointed Habibie Vice President earlier this year--after he had already agreed to the terms of a $43 billion IMF loan. One of the "reforms" demanded by the IMF and imperialist powers like the U.S. was an end to the kind of open corruption that has characterized the Suharto regime--where power and wealth is gained on the basis of family ties and friendship. In this light, the appointment of a man who some say is "like a son to Suharto" was seen as a snub to the U.S./IMF demands. And IMF and U.S. officials have also voiced their dissatisfaction with Habibie. They say Habibie's economic theories are contrary to the U.S./IMF plan to more fully open up Indonesia to the global economy.

In his first speech as president, Habibie promised to implement reforms, clean up the government, and fulfill commitments to the IMF. He praised Suharto "for all his services and dedication to the nation and country." And at the same time, he thanked the students for helping to "accelerate the process of reform."

Meanwhile, out on the streets, many students and other demonstrators argued that Habibie was nothing but Suharto's puppet. And they changed their demand from "Down with Suharto" to "Down with Habibie."

When a new Cabinet was announced on Friday, it became even more clear that Habibie didn't represent any real change. Habibie removed from office a few of the most notorious friends and family of Suharto--like his daughter and golf partner. But the new Cabinet proved to be only a shuffling of the old guard. Most of the new Cabinet are from Suharto's ruling Golkar party. And General Wiranto seems to have won out in his rivalry with Suharto's son-in-law, Lt. Gen. Prabowo, who headed the army's Strategic Command and had direct authority over the military's anti-riot forces. After the new cabinet was named, Prabowo was fired, along with several other high military commanders.

Habibie and the new cabinet are supposed to remain in power until the year 2003. But many bourgeois analysts are saying (and hoping) Habibie won't last long--that he is just a transition figure who will probably be replaced by someone in the military like General Wiranto.

The central role of Suharto's military apparatus in the "orderly" transition of power was demonstrated when Wiranto immediately endorsed Habibie and declared that the generals would continue to protect not only the political order but Suharto and his family. And another military commander announced on TV, "Stability in the city is a top priority. We are preventing any trouble."

Protest Continues

When news of Suharto's resignation hit the streets, there was joyful celebration among the people. But many students and others who had taken to the streets to demand an end to the brutal Suharto regime were still angry and dissatisfied. "We need total reform," one student said. "As we have been successful now, we must keep on going." Another said, "It's only one of our demands. There is so much more. We want to get rid of all aspects of the Suharto regime." Some students chanted: "Hang Suharto!" or "Give his property back to the people!" And there were also shouts of "Down with Habibie!"

The military quickly stepped in to stop any further protests, which would now be aimed at the Habibie government. And bourgeois opposition leaders like Amien Rais told the students to "give Habibie a chance." The day after Suharto's resignation, Rais met with Habibie and then said, "I share with the students the idea that Habibie may not be a good replacement but I want to be realistic. I want to tell the students to be realistic, too. Demanding that Habibie resign immediately is too much.... He is my good friend although our political ideologies differ." Rais, who recently returned from a high-level visit to Washington, DC, stated that Habibie may not be able to survive for more than three to six months.

The military quickly moved to clear the Parliament building. On Friday, May 22, soldiers marched in after dark, rounding up student protesters who had occupied the complex for days. Dozens of military trucks arrived with soldiers, and scuffles broke out as some students tried to form a barrier. "Disperse, disperse!" the military police shouted, carrying M-16 rifles, truncheons and tear-gas canisters. One news service reported that "rock-throwing fights broke out after 5,000 pro-Habibie supporters confronted an equal number of anti-government student protesters at Parliament." While some students chanted, "Bring down Habibie! Put Suharto on trial!" others--who some suspect were organized by the government--yelled back, "Habibie, No. 1."

U.S. Godfather Maneuvers
and IMF Demands

Throughout Suharto's rule, the U.S. built up and relied on Indonesia as a source of relative stability in Southeast Asia. The U.S. stood behind this brutal regime and directly trained the Indonesian military. The U.S. and other big powers like Japan substantial economic interests in this country of over 200 million people. And there is a lot of imperialist concern that serious economic and political crisis in Indonesia could affect the whole East Asia region--and even beyond. This is why the U.S. and the IMF stepped in to try to prevent further economic instability in Indonesia. And the U.S. had a very hands-on, open role in forcing Suharto to an IMF agreement aimed at establishing even more imperialist control and domination in Indonesia.

But in recent weeks, as mass protests erupted throughout Indonesia and Suharto's days seemed numbered, the U.S. was careful to not openly play its Godfather role. Administration officials warned that public efforts by the U.S. to influence the situation might spark a nationalistic backlash by various Indonesian forces.

The official position of the Clinton administration was, "We want Indonesians to decide what is appropriate." And while the U.S. certainly didn't want to break off ties with Suharto and his cronies, it began to distance itself somewhat from Suharto and the Indonesian military, urging them to use "restraint" with demonstrators. Meanwhile, the U.S. quickly tried to arrange a high-level meeting with Indonesia's top military leaders--most likely to help figure out how to keep the situation from deteriorating and making sure that the U.S. maintained influence and control among the forces who might come to power after Suharto.

Only hours before Suharto announced his resignation, U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright had called for Suharto to "preserve his legacy" by permitting a democratic transition--an implicit call for him to step down. And then after Habibie came to power, the U.S. urged him to "move swiftly toward democratic and economic reforms." But some U.S. officials seem to be revealing their preferred scenario by stating that Habibie will probably end up being a transition figure since he is not up to the task of carrying out such "reform." One U.S. official noted that the Indonesia military will play an extremely important role in determining whether Habibie is able to serve out the rest of Suharto's five-year term. And various analysts have pointed out that the U.S. has had a good relationship with General Wiranto. The U.S. is now expecting a "period of uncertainty," the official said, pointing out that protests would probably continue because of widespread anti-Habibie sentiment and the continuing economic crisis.


The IMF, backed by the U.S., had suspended funds to Indonesia after widespread protests broke out throughout the country. But now, in order to resume the bailout, the U.S. and the IMF expect Habibie to get back on track in implementing the economic "reforms" stipulated by the IMF agreement. But it is these very "reforms" which could set off the next round of mass protests. Millions of people in Indonesia are already being forced into deeper poverty and misery. And further "austerity measures" which the U.S./IMF wants Habibie to implement would only create a more angry, desperate and rebellious mood among the people.

The struggle of the people forced U.S.-backed butcher Suharto to resign. This is a real victory for the people. But the Indonesian government is still run by a pro-U.S. government, the military dogs are still in the street. And in order to get real liberation, the Indonesian people will have to build on and learn from the heroic struggles of recent weeks and develop a revolutionary movement to overthrow the lackey government and get rid of bureaucrat capitalism and imperialist domination.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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