Indonesia: Suharto May Win This Battle, But Not The War

After 31 years of authoritarian rule, ailing Indonesian President Suharto is looking more desperate with each passing day. In mid-August, the 75-year-old military ruler launched a sweeping crackdown on pro-democracy and labor leaders. He reshuffled the military top brass, sacking a general who failed to anticipate riots in which thousands of middle-class Indonesians took to the streets of Jakarta in late July. Suharto also installed his son-in-law as commander of an army unit expected to restore order and protect the family fortune.

The President's next move, say diplomats in Jakarta, will be against prominent opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former housewife turned figurehead of an embryonic democracy movement. Megawati already has been removed from the chairmanship of her Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) and summoned twice for "questioning" by police. Sources expect the police will find some way of restraining her, whether it's by placing her under house arrest or taking away her legal rights.

Megawati can expect to be accused of inciting riots in an alleged conspiracy with the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party. Those are the charges against 10 pro-democracy activists and a labor leader who have been arrested. Giving Megawati the same treatment could provoke more riots and lead to bloodshed. Some troops are still patrolling the capital with submachine guns.

Suharto's handling of Megawati thus far shows that he is ill-equipped to face legitimate opposition from a politician with popular support. She was once perceived as merely boasting a powerful family name, as daughter of former President Sukarno, who was ousted by Suharto in 1965. But Megawati is building up a grassroots base for the PDI. "She sees a need to be with the masses. That's what's going to power her party and bring in votes," says a diplomat in Jakarta. Suharto's ruling party, Golkar, which wins a majority every five years by preventing opposition parties from getting equal campaign time, looks like an obvious fraud in comparison.

Bereft of popular support, Suharto is closing ranks with his military allies and weeding out possible opponents before the 1998 presidential election. He is expected to move faster than usual to nominate a vice-president, a post traditionally filled by a Javanese army general.

Megawati, 49, isn't the only pro-democracy leader who has been targeted. Muchtar Pakpahan, jailed in 1994 for allegedly inciting factory workers' riots in North Sumatra, was arrested again in late July. Budiman Sudjatmiko, and nine other leaders of the People's Democratic Party, were also arrested Aug. 11 and 12. Muchtar and Budiman are charged with the capital crime of sedition and inciting riots. They have denied they are communists.

Jakarta is braced for repeats of the July riots that rocked the city. Juwono Sudarsono, professor of political science at the University of Indonesia, says the July rampage resulted from "cynicism and outright rejection" of Suharto's regime, "especially among the young and unemployed."

The only comfort for Suharto may be knowing that his six grown children and their extensive business interests could be protected. His newly elevated son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto Soemitro, can be expected to stand guard over the family fortune. Prabowo's rise to major general, at the young age of 44, is his second such promotion in a year. The U.S.-trained commander could prove to be a valuable asset if Suharto's health worsens, and could even emerge as his successor--but that promises to be a rocky transition.

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