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Indonesian Riots After Troops Kill Protesters

by Andreas Harsono

on Indonesia's crisis, and why it is poorly reported in U.S. media
(AR) JAKARTA -- Widespread riots broke out Saturday as thousands of students and opposition leaders protested for democratic reform following the death of 8 student protesters and several others killed in a violent clash on Friday. Troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets on students and bystanders near downtown Atmajaya Catholic University, adjacent to Jakarta's stock exchange.

During the subsequent riots, crowds retaliated against police, as political moderates joined a widespread call from popular leaders for prompt elections and for army commander General Wiranto to step down.

Ambulances were delivering a steady supply of gunshot victims
The riots began Friday evening after three days of mostly peaceful protest outside Indonesia's Parliament building, where government leaders were about to close a special session t to establish the framework for Indonesia's general election next year.

The best explanation of the significance of the Assembly appeared in a November 14 article in the Sydney Morning Herald written by Louise Williams:

...When massive student demonstrations and riots forced Suharto to step down six months ago, he handed over to close friend then vice-president Dr B.J.Habibie. Mr Suharto's 1,000-member People's Consultative Assembly was then charged with dismantling his authoritarian political system at a four-day "extra-ordinary session" this week to make way for democratic elections next year...

...As protests on the street grew bigger and more violent every day, Mr Suharto's old friends from his Golkar [political party], which ruled Indonesia for 32 years, were attempting to re-invent themselves as "reformists." By Thursday night students were battling with riot police only hundreds of metres from the Parliament gates, 120 people had been injured, one student and one police officer had been beaten to death and several students had been shot and seriously injured.

Significantly, thousands of ordinary people joined the students on the streets in the pouring rain, attacking riot troops with rocks as tear gas filled the narrow lanes of their working-class suburb.

Much of the students' anger is focused on the legitimacy of the assembly itself: how is it that a body formed under Mr Suharto, and with no democratic right to rule, is entrusted with Indonesia's political future?

Protesters confronted thousands of army soldiers who opened fire on the students with rubber bullets and possibly live ammunition. Three students were immediately killed on the spot. Water cannons and tear gas were also used.

As the session concluded at 9:30PM with a televised speech by President B.J. Habibie, ambulances were delivering a steady supply of gunshot victims to area hospitals. Broadcast and print media reported that troops followed fleeing students back to the University and even on to hospital grounds to shoot or beat them.

Tanks and thousands of other officers guarding every strategic corner
Indonesian television station RCTI reported Saturday night that the most serious disturbance had taken place in central Jakarta, where rioters looted scores of Chinese-owned shops and torched several cars.

The rioters, who came mostly from Jakarta's slum areas, attacked business centers as Indonesian Marines tried to persuade the crowd from doing further damage.

The Marines were apparently deployed to replace army and police colleagues whose images were tarnished by their involvement in the killings Friday in front of the Atmajaya University. The Marines are widely considered friendly to protesters and democracy forces in Indonesia, and were cheered by the crowd as they arrived after Friday's shootings.

The military also deployed tanks and thousands of other officers to guard every strategic corner of this city of 10 million people.

Muslim leader Amien Rais of the newly-established National Mandate Party demanded that Wiranto resign, saying that the once-popular general must be held responsible for the killing and the violence in this Asian capital. Wiranto's restraint prevented much greater bloodshed during student riots last May, observers say.

Fears of provacateurs in the crowds
Wiranto himself denied that he had ordered the shooting nor armed his men with live ammunition, and vowed that they will investigate the shootings. He also offered apologies to the families of the victims.

In the United States, observers said they feared that provacateurs associated with the ousted Suharto regime were responsible for some of the assassinations either as disguised protestors in the crowds of students or Suharto loyalists in the army who were deliberately given live ammunition to sow mass confusion that would lead to new attacks on Wiranto's leadership of the Indonesian army.

Many Suharto loyalists say the loss of the Gen. Wiranto's support was the critical factor in his ouster, as the loss of his then-Secretary of Defense Juan Ponce Enrile spelled the end of the Marcos regime in the Philippines.

Others dismissed those concerns, though, saying they were simply an attempt to find excuses for Wiranto and the army units accused of killing the protestors.

Surgeons at a Jakarta hospital showed that one student had a gunshot wound caused by live ammunition on his right leg, which they say contradicted earlier police statements that the anti-riot officers were equipped only with rubbet bullets. There was no immediate indication of the weapon caliber involved.

Wiranto instructed to take firm measures
The students were demanding that the Assembly reject the military's role in appointing about 75 members of parliament, saying that the military as well as its "dual function role" -- which permits the military to be involved in politics -- are the only factors that now hamper the process of democratization in this country.

But the Assembly -- whose members were mostly handpicked by former President Suharto -- agreed to still permit the military presence. It also agreed to fulfill other public demands including a total investigation into the corrupt practices of the Suhartos.

Meanwhile, more than 20 top Indonesian reform leaders also issued a statement asking Wiranto to step down, according to a front-page story in the Jakarta Post.

"Many people pointed their fingers at ... Wiranto as the person most responsible for the Friday the 13th tragedy, or what some people call Black Friday," The English-language Jakarta Post reported.

Muslim scholar A.S. Hikam, of the huge and influential Nahdlatul Ulama Muslim organization, called Wiranto a "cold-blooded murderer" in a live radio interview. "Actually the students have their own self-control mechanism. But they were repeatedly harassed and beaten by the officers. The students finally reacted."

The students, after failing in several attempts since Tuesday to approach and occupy the parliament building as they did in May, managed to penetrate the military blocade at 2PM, and as of 7PM Saturday more than 10,000 of them had occupied the broad 12-lane avenue in front of the building.

In a move which is likely to provoke further student anger, Habibie said in a recorded television message Saturday that "some groups of the society" are trying "to break the law by mobilizing masses" and "to topple the legitimate government."

Habibie bluntly condemned the student protest and saying that he had instructed Wiranto to take firm measures against "subversive activities."

"The public should be more careful and not to be provoked by those groups which are trying to disturb the unity of Indonesia."

Unconfirmed rumors also spread widely Saturday morning that the military might detain popular Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur, the chairman of the 30-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama organization. A radio station broadcast the speculation, which could further inflame the situation. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, and is the world's fourth-largest nation.

But Wahid called a press conference where he said that Wiranto and two other high-ranging army generals had immediately called him and told him the broadcast report was groundless.

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Albion Monitor November 13, 1998 (

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