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Indonesia crisis: The what, where and when

By Vanessa Lewis

The world watches in awe-some in fear, others in hope-as tens of thousands of Indonesians rebel against 32 years of poverty and repression under the regime of President Suharto. A historical political change is taking place in the fourth most populous country on earth.

Indonesia is spread over 17,000 islands in the South Pacific. But 60 percent of the 210 million Indonesian people live on just one island-Java, where the capital, Jakarta, is located.

Downtown Jakarta is a modern city of soaring office buildings and hotels. It is surrounded by desperate slums where millions live. The average income is $3,300 a year, but 8 percent of the population lives on $1 or less a day in what is considered one of the world's richest countries in natural resources.

Roots of current crisis

In June 1997 a widespread economic crisis resulting from capitalist overproduction began in Malaysia with a currency collapse and then spread to other Asian "tigers."

By last fall, Indonesia was $55 billion in debt and asking for a loan from the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund.

The IMF set a number of conditions for the loan, including price increases, ending subsidies on some necessities, and canceling government development projects that provided many jobs. President Suharto resisted such measures for fear of relinquishing control of the power and fortune he has put directly into the hands of his family and friends in the military. He also feared what has ultimately occurred-a mass uprising.

Student demonstrations began in February as massive layoffs and the collapse of the country's currency further impoverished workers, students and unemployed laborers.

Finally, early in May, Suharto implemented some of the IMF program, including a 71 percent increase in fuel prices. This drove outraged workers and students to come out in huge demonstrations over the last several weeks calling for Suharto to step down.

Timeline of events

On May 12, police opened fire on student demonstrators at Trisakti University in Jakarta, killing six people. Sharpshooters had shot all the protesters in the head or chest. Other students barricaded themselves on campus as police and special forces troops with tanks surrounded the campus and even dropped into it from helicopters.

Over the next three days, tens of thousands of Indonesians took to the streets. They threw rocks at the police, destroyed automatic teller machines and reclaimed their stolen money from banks. They set cars, shops and buildings on fire. One group burned a police station as officers fired on them and helicopters dropped cans of tear gas. (CNN, May 14)

Hundreds of poor Indonesians were brutally killed by the army, which claimed they were trapped in burning stores while looting. Other accounts, however, said the army locked people inside buildings and then burned them down.

Gen. Wahab Mokodongan of the Armed Forces issued a statement that the death toll had "topped 499." (AP, May 16) More than 1,000 protesters were arrested.

More than 10,000 armed forces troops were deployed in the streets of Jakarta alone.

But the opposition to Suharto was growing, including among the more privileged students and even in the military. In an astonishing development, marines refused to fire on protesters and even marched alongside them, raising fists in the air (Washington Post, May 16). "The sight of marines in their scarlet berets glad-handing young demonstrators" was reportedly broadcast again and again on Indonesia's state-controlled television news.

In the wake of the spontaneous uprising, foreign residents of Jakarta, including thousands from the U.S., fled the country in a panic.

While workers raged in the streets, 10,000 students demonstrated in Bandung. Thousands more continued to take to the streets in Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city and a major port.

The uprising of Indonesia's impoverished workers forced Suharto to reverse himself and lower prices. He also tried to reassure protesting students and other bourgeois tendencies alike that he would adjust his cabinet to meet demands for political reform.

But by this time Suharto was seen as a liability not only by some in the military but by their long-time patrons-U.S. banks and corporations. After years of the most brutal repression, suddenly, on May 18, soldiers actually escorted thousands of students into the parliament, where they met with officials and demanded that Suharto step down.

The program of these students, many of them children of the military bourgeoisie, is "eliminate NKK"-nepotism, collusion and corruption.

Other students are more radical, however. One group, again at an elite university, held a mock trial of Suharto for the 1965-66 massacre of over a million leftists.

A worker summed up the current struggle best when he said, "All this happened because of the gap between the rich and the poor." (New York Times, May 18) Whatever the outcome of the demonstrations and protest, the workers and oppressed will continue to struggle.

Cast of characters

Here are some short descriptions of Indonesians in the news.

President Sukarno. President of Indonesia from 1945 to 1967. Sukarno was a popular anti-imperialist nationalist who led the struggle against Dutch and Japanese colonialism, declaring Indonesia independent in 1945. Sukarno depended on wide support from the left. During his presidency, Indonesia had the largest Communist Party outside the socialist countries.

President Suharto. President of Indonesia from 1967 to the present. Suharto is a former general who collaborated with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in 1965 to stage a counterrevolutionary coup against the Sukarno government. While Suharto didn't name himself president for two more years, he carried out the CIA's plan to decimate the Indonesian Communist Party. Within a year, the military massacred an estimated one million Indonesian leftists and nationalists.

General Wiranto. Commander of the Armed Forces and Minister of Defense under Suharto. Suharto's "right-hand man," Wiranto has also been identified as the principal liaison between the army and those students supporting "measured" reform.

General Probawa. Head of the Army Strategic Reserves and son-in-law of Suharto. Probawa has denied rumors of a split in the military.

Harmoko. Indonesia's speaker of the house. Once Suharto's closest servant, he has now called for the president's resignation.

Amien Rais. Leader of a Muslim organization who has announced himself a candidate to succeed Suharto. Rais is reported to have encouraged demonstrations against ethnic Chinese.

Megawati Sukarnoputri. Founder and leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party and daughter of President Sukarno. In 1997 the Suharto regime tried to oust her from her own Party. This touched off a rebellion in downtown Jakarta as youth from poor neighborhoods attacked banks and corporate offices. She has been low-key in the current crisis.

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