Albion Monitor /News

Twilight of the God

by Andreas Harsono

The aging president was even rumored to have died last week
(AR) JAKARTA -- The main streets were crowded Friday evening with heavy traffic jams in the downtown business district. Amid the skyscrapers, Jakarta rushed to go home for the weekend, and everything seemed normal.

But this evening was actually very unusual. A few hours earlier, it was announced that President Suharto had cancelled his planned trip to the ASEAN informal summit in Kuala Lumpur. The spokesmen characterized it as fatigue -- but many believe is something much more troubling.

"After a routine check up, the presidential doctors advised him not to go on any long journey for the time being," said a member of the Cabinet.

Just minutes after the announcement, the Indonesian rupiah and the stock market plunged to new uncharted lows, forcing the rupiah to break the critical 5,000 barrier to a new record of 5,225 against the American dollar in the spot market.

Rumors, however, began to circulate widely here among foreign diplomats and the circle of elite that the 76-year-old Suharto had suffered a minor stroke earlier this month.

The aging president was even rumored to have died last week, pushing the rupiah through the 4,000 psychological barrier to end up losing more than 50 percent of its value since July.

Cabinet Minister Moerdiono, however, repeatedly denied the rumors, saying that Suharto only needed to take a rest and that his boss is in a good shape despite the fatigue.

In every corner of Jakarta, whether its an army barracks, a student clearinghouse or a business office, people are secretly discussing a post-Suharto Indonesia
In an apparent bid to confront the rumors, the state-owned television station showed Suharto meeting Moerdiono and Foreign Minister Ali Alatas in Suharto's private residence on Dec. 12, during which the pale-looking Suharto was shown sitting on a sofa. He smiled and nodded a number of times but did not make many gestures.

The short footage, instead of calming the rumors, raised more speculation, that that Suharto had to be helped to sit on the sofa; one Internet user speculated that Suharto had probably used a wheelchair to reach the living room.

The video has obviously shocked most Indonesians, especially those born under Suharto's rule, who are discouraged from even thinking that Indonesia may need to a younger president to replace Suharto.

Australia-based Indonesian watcher professor Hal Hill said it is also obvious that President Suharto is old and tired. Since he took power in 1965, Suharto has built an arrogant and corrupt bureaucracy and a powerful military unaccustomed to listening to the masses.

But it survived because it brought an economic boom. People could buy food and have better clothes. Economic development is frequently used as a pretext to silence the media, to harass the opposition and to jail dissidents.

The whole structure suddenly collapsed in July, when the Thai baht was devalued. That in turn affected other fragile economies in the region, including Indonesia's.

"Suharto is over. It's only a matter of time," predicted an Indonesian veteran activist. The former student leader said that the monetary crisis had burdened President Suharto to such an extent that the crisis had seriously damaged his health.

He explained that the monetary crisis, in fact, had prompted the birth of a still-embryonic political crisis with three features: first, he said, is fragmented the highly centralized political power of the regime. Suharto is not as strong as he was, and perhaps reflecting that, his own supporters fight with one another. Second, the activist said, the bureaucracy is unable to reach for whatever grassroots support Suharto might have. Third, a mass political movement is likely to emerge when people start to realize that there is a chance to fight Suharto and his cronies, much as a People's Revolution toppled President Marcos in 1986.

Another veteran, who is widely known to be a pessimist and was once part of Suharto's Golkar ruling party, suddenly appeared at elite gatherings saying that the end of the Suharto era is only "a matter of weeks" away.

Observers here suggest that in every corner of Jakarta, whether its an army barracks, a student clearinghouse or a business office, people are secretly discussing a post-Suharto Indonesia -- what they should do and not do, who to build an alliance with, and when to begin behind-the-scenes maneuvers.

Situation frightens many because of similarities to conditions before Suharto's bloody rise to power
Suharto was in Vancouver last month for the annual summit meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. He earlier visited President Nelson Mandela in South Africa after a visit to Mecca.

A medical source at the presidential palace said Suharto had been advised to conserve his energy on the long APEC trip and should even avoid playing golf, one of his favorite sports, with U.S. President Bill Clinton, Canadian Premier Jean Chretien and Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in Vancouver.

Noted historian Ong Hok Ham said that speculation about Suharto's health clearly has reminded the public of a similar problem in mid-1965. The late President Sukarno was then rumored to have a serious kidney problem.

"The rumors said that Sukarno's kidney problem had reached an acute phase and he could only survive for six more months," wrote Ong in the KOMPAS daily, the biggest serious newspaper in Indonesia, adding that the widespread speculation had prompted the Indonesian Communist Party to initiate a political coup against their army opponents and try to take power on Sept. 30, 1965.

But the abortive coup attempt backfired. Major General Suharto consolidated the army in only five days and smashed the communists. It is widely speculated that between 300,000 and one million allegedly leftist workers were killed in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt.

Sukarno was sidelined. And Suharto rose to power.

"Gossip, rumors and speculation are always part of the Indonesian political culture," said Ong, explaining that the Sukarno rumors had been shown to be wrong. But, he noted, the widespread speculation proved more important than the real situation.

Ong didn't say whether he thought history might repeat itself in Jakarta, but the speculation about Suharto's health could not come at a more critical time for the country.

The financial crisis has led to the dismissal of more than one million workers, most of them bewly-minted members of the middle class from the property and financial sectors. Food prices are on the rise. Economic growth is disturbed. Confidence is shaken.

Millions of workers, ironically, still expect their employers to pay their annual bonuses as they prepare to make merry at four holiday celebrations: Christmas Day (December), New Year (January), Idul Fitri (January) and the Chinese New Year (February).

Idul Fitri, the Muslim celebration at the end of the fasting month known as Ramadan is particularly important, and is the biggest celebration in a nation where more than 90 percent of the 200 million population are Muslims.

During Idul Fitri, Indonesian Muslims traditionally come home, prepare special meals, buy new clothing -- and spend more money. Observers say the economic crisis will start to bite when people find that they cannot spend their money to buy expensive foods and new clothes as usual. More protests are expected in the industrial belts around Jakarta and Surabaya in eastern Java.

In addition to the financial crisis is the long drought which contributed to the burning of Indonesia's forests on the islands of Kalimantan and Sumatra and has also damaged rice production in Indonesia.

Ominous threat that armed forces is prepared to take action against "those people" before March elections
Yet many still expect the authoritarian leader is to be "re-elected" for his seventh five-year term in office in March. Tradition dictates that the vice-presidential candidate is handpicked by him.

But Suharto's health has made the number two seat a hot one. Suharto's aides, like Minister of Research and Technology B.J. Habibie, Minister of Information R. Hartono, army head General Wiranto as well as the current Vice President, Try Sutrisno, are all likely to be involved in a race for power along with their respective allies if Suharto's health continues to fail.

As if knowing that the March plenary might create a staging ground for political maneuvers, Indonesian military commander General Feisal Tanjung issued a peremptory warning to those who sought to disrupt the plenary by "excessive interruptions, walking out of meetings or taking votes."

Tanjung said the armed forces is prepared to take action against "those people," although analysts here doubted whether Tanjung could still control his generals and other younger officers who are now apparently seeking new sponsors in the absence of a common platform of support for Suharto.

"Suharto has no vision," said the veteran activist, "He does not even know what he should do with the monetary crisis. Even the World Bank is not happy with the way Suharto resisted the recovery measures."

Perhaps, as they sat trapped in the Jakarta traffic Friday evening, motorists were already beginning to think, " How serious is his illness? What will happen if the old man dies?" Or, they may ask themselves, as novelist Mochtar Lubis did in his book, "Twilight in Jakarta" -- about the final days of the late President Sukarno in the mid-1960s -- "Is another twilight here to stay?"

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Albion Monitor December 15, 1997 (

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