The day Jakarta imploded amid bullets and flames

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 January, 2008, 12:00am

How a rampaging mob broke Suharto's 32-year grip on power

When former Indonesian president Suharto died yesterday in the hush of a critical-care room in Jakarta, the contrast with his political demise a decade ago could not have been starker.

By the time he stood down on May 21, 1998, he had been in power for 32 years. The world's longest-reigning dictator, Suharto ruled with an iron fist: an estimated 1 million people died or were imprisoned on his watch.

The last 1,100 deaths came in the final days of his rule as unprecedented, nationwide protests reached Jakarta. The capital of the world's fourth-most populous nation - an ethnically diverse archipelago - descended into anarchy. The scars of that violence can still be seen on both the society and the city.

The troubles broke out as Suharto visited Egypt on a rare foreign mission. His timing showed self-confidence, given that the regional financial meltdown was at its height and the pain of economic collapse was being felt by ordinary people. High levels of growth, development and stability had fuelled the legitimacy of Suharto's authoritarian rule; recession laid its reality bare and exposed its corrupt roots.

The violence began with mobs of disenfranchised young men looting and torching swathes of the city over three days. The Glodok Chinatown was targeted, along with multi-storey shopping malls and other totems of the wealthy, pro-Suharto elite. Dozens of ethnic Chinese women were raped.

The mansion of Liem Sioe Liong - Indonesia's richest man - was raided by looters, who paraded his gilded portrait and other valuables like trophies through the streets. Tanks patrolled the city's wealthier quarters, while the normally placid tree-lined airport road degenerated into a bloody gauntlet for anyone trying to flee.

The beginning of the end came on a hot, polluted Tuesday. I watched as troops tried to stop a crowd of 5,000 students leaving Trisakti University to march on the dictator's rubber-stamp parliament. Single rounds of rubber bullets were followed by the sickening pop-pop-pop of automatic M16 fire when soldiers spied students beating a suspected undercover officer. At least six students died and dozens were injured.

For some, it was their first protest. Arvin, a 22-year-old law student, stood in the street and cursed Suharto - an action considered unthinkable until then under the dictator's so-called 'New Order' regime. 'He is killing us now,' Arvin told me, holding the shells of bullets that had hit his friends. 'This will be the start of a very big deal.'

For days the tensions had been building, and a once-repressed Jakarta crackled with talk of revolution. Lewd jokes about the dictator's greedy children filled the streets. Whether on the docks, in the slums or the coffee bars of the middle classes, hushed talk of reformasi - reformation - could be heard.

Early the next morning, after the Trisakti shootings, thousands gathered peacefully at the campus to hear opposition and student leaders demand peaceful change. In the streets, mobs of young men from the city's poorest slums were already taking matters into their own hands, overturning cars and setting them ablaze. They hurled rocks and bricks at the ranks of armed riot police and soldiers, who initially seemed reluctant to intervene.

By dawn the next day, the city started to implode - with Glodok at its hot core. Thousands of ethnic Chinese families huddled behind closed grilles and boarded-up shopfronts. The streets were deserted except for rampaging mobs of looters, many of them young boys.

There was little apparent reason or structure behind the destruction: some shops filled with electronic equipment or jewellery were abandoned as soon as their doors were kicked in; others were picked clean. A six-storey hotel and market complex was torched, its occupants having fled hours before.

Sheer hunger seemed to drive others and bakeries were a popular target. Boys sat in the rubble stuffing buns into their mouths, ignoring stacks of looted electronic goods. Others danced hysterically around burning cars, whooping to chants of 'Suharto must die'. From the roof of my hotel that night, Jakarta seemed to be a city eating itself.

Columns of dense black smoke rose high into the sky, plunging some quarters into a sinister twilight. Blazing fires ringed the sprawling city, some of them shopping malls where the charred bodies of hundreds of looters would be found the next day.

The energy driving the anarchy eventually dissipated, but the damage was done. Suharto threw a ring of military steel around Jakarta but failed to stop the momentum of more peaceful protests. Students occupied parliament and his closest military advisers warned of civil war.

Within 10 days, Suharto had agreed to step down. He made his decision in the rambling recesses of his mansion in the Menteng district, where for years he had remained aloof, despite his widespread power.

The violence that marked his political downfall was far from unprecedented.

An estimated 500,000 suspected communists - many of them ethnic Chinese - were killed in purges that followed his 1965 seizure of power from president Sukarno. Streams on Java ran red with blood as security forces and Muslim militants turned on communists, blaming them for an earlier coup attempt.

Suharto's passing marks the final chapter for one of the most feared and enigmatic leaders the region has seen. Yet, for Indonesia, it is part of a wider beginning. The freedoms that escaped his grip in the last days of his rule have seen the country develop into a fully fledged democracy with a proudly free press, wide cultural and political expression and a more flexible bureaucracy.

The Sino-Indonesian community is expressing cautious hope for the future.

Simmering undercurrents of Muslim extremism have so far been kept in check by the moderate majority, without resorting to the strong-arm tactics of Suharto.

But corruption is still a problem and a desperately poor underclass remains, despite a stuttering return to high growth.

In many other ways, though, Indonesia is a richer nation than it was under Suharto. There will be many dry eyes in Jakarta today.