Fall of Suharto: Wikis


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Suharto retired as president of Indonesia in May 1998 following collapse of support for his three-decade long Presidency of Indonesia. The resignation followed severe economic and political crisis in the previous 6 to 12 months. BJ Habibie continued at least a year of his remaining presidential years, followed by Abdurrahman Wahid in 1999. Suharto's resignation also marked the end of the New Order, an order that began in 1968.


Dissent under the New Order

Coming to power in 1966 on the heels of an alleged coup by the Indonesian Communist Party, the government of the former general Suharto adopted policies that severely restricted civil liberties and instituted a system of rule that effectively split power within his own Golkar Party and the military.

In 1970, corruption prompted student protests and an investigation by a government commission. Suharto responded by banning student protest, forcing the activists underground. Only token prosecution of cases recommended by the commission was pursued. The pattern of co-opting a few of his more powerful opponents while criminalizing the rest became a hallmark of Suharto's rule.

In order to maintain a veneer of democracy, Suharto made a number of electoral reforms. He stood for election before electoral college votes every five years, beginning in 1973. According to his electoral rules, however, only three parties were allowed to participate in the election: his own Golkar party; the Islamist United Development Party (PPP), and the Democratic Party of Indonesia (PDI). All the previously existing political parties were forced to be part of either the PPP and PDI, with public servants under pressure to join the membership of Golkar. In a political compromise with the powerful military, he banned its members from voting in elections, but set aside 100 seats in the electoral college for their representatives. As a result, he won every election in which he stood, in 1978, 1983, 1988, 1993, and 1998.

This authoritarianism became an issue in the 1980s. On 5 May 1980 a group Petition of Fifty (Petisi 50) demanded greater political freedoms. It was composed of former military men, politicians, academics and students. The Indonesian media suppressed the news and the government placed restrictions on the signatories. After the group's 1984 accusation that Suharto was creating a one-party state, some of its leaders were jailed.

In the same decade, it is believed by many scholars that the Indonesian military split between a nationalist "red and white faction" and an Islamist "green faction." As the 1980s closed, Suharto is said to have been forced to shift his alliances from the former to the latter, leading to the rise of Jusuf Habibie in the 1990s.

After the 1990s brought end of the Cold War, Western concern over communism waned, and Suharto's human rights record came under greater international scrutiny. In 1991, the murder of East Timorese civilians in a Dili cemetery, also known as the "Santa Cruz Massacre", caused American attention to focus on its military relations with the Suharto regime and the question of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. In 1992, this attention resulted in the Congress of the United States passing limitations on IMET assistance to the Indonesian military, over the objections of President George H.W. Bush. In 1993, under President Bill Clinton, the U.S. delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission helped pass a resolution expressing deep concern over Indonesian human rights violations in East Timor.

Cracks emerge

In 1996, the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), a legal party that had traditionally propped up the regime changed direction, and began to assert its independence under the daughter of the popular father of the nation Sukarno, Megawati Sukarnoputri. In response, Suharto attempted to foster a split over the leadership of PDI, backing a co-opted faction loyal to deputy speaker of Parliament Suryadi against supporters of "Mega."

After the Suryadi faction announced a party congress to sack Megawati would be held in Medan June 20 - 22, Megawati proclaimed that her supporters would hold demonstrations in protest. The Suryadi faction went through with its sacking of Megawati, and the demonstrations manifested themselves throughout Indonesia. This led to several confrontations on the streets between protesters and security forces, and recriminations over the violence. The protests culminated in the military allowing Megawati's supporters to take over PDI headquarters in Jakarta, with a pledge of no further demonstrations.

Suharto allowed the occupation of PDI headquarters to go on for almost a month, as attentions were also on Jakarta due to a set of high-profile ASEAN meetings scheduled to take place there. Capitalizing on this, Megawati supporters organized "democracy forums" with several speakers at the site. On July 26, officers of the military, Suryadi, and Suharto openly aired their disgust with the forums. (Aspinall 1996)

On July 27, police, soldiers, and persons claiming to be Suryadi supporters stormed the headquarters. Several Megawati supporters were killed, and over two-hundred arrested and tried under the Anti-Subversion and Hate-spreading laws. The day would become known as "Black Saturday" and mark the beginning of a renewed crackdown by the New Order government against supporters of democracy, now called the "Reformasi" or Reformation. (Amnesty International 1996)

Monetary crisis

Indonesia followed Thailand in abandoning the fixed exchange rate of its currency on 14 August 1997.[1] The rupiah further devalued to its lowest point following the signing of the second IMF letter of intent on 15 January 1998.

In the second half of 1997, Indonesia became the country hardest hit by the Asian economic crisis. The Indonesian rupiah dropped to almost 20% of its original value, causing huge debts on foreign currency and often short-term debt. Weaknesses in the Indonesian economy, including a high debt, poor financial management systems and crony capitalism, were identified as underlying causes. Other analysts cited volatility in the global financial system and over-liberalisation of international capital markets.[2] The government responded by floating the currency, requesting International Monetary Fund assistance, closing some banks and postponing some major capital projects. Evidence suggested that Suharto's family and associates were being spared the toughest requirements of the reform process. There was open conflict between economic technocrats implementing IMF plans and Suharto-related vested interests.[3]

In December 1997, Suharto for the first time did not attend an ASEAN presidents' summit, which was later revealed to be due to a minor stroke, creating speculation about his health and immediate future of his presidency. In mid December as the crisis swept through Indonesia and an estimated $150 bn of capital was being withdrawn from the country, he appeared at a press conference to assure he was in charge and to urge people to trust the government and the collapsing Rupiah.[4]

Suharto's attempts to re-instill confidence, such as ordering generals to personally reassure shoppers at markets and an "I Love the Rupiah" campaign, had little effect. The government released a highly unrealistic budget which sent the Rupiah to below Rp. 10,000 to the US dollar (compared to Rp. 2,200 six months earlier). The currency decreased to Rp. 16,500 to the US dollar following Suharto's subsequent announcement that he would appoint Habibie as the next vice president.[5] Suharto reluctantly agreed to a far wider reaching IMF package of structural reforms on 15 January 1998.[5] However, the Rupiah continued on to drop to a sixth of its pre-crisis value, and rumours and panic led to a run on stores and pushed up prices.[6]

Suharto's position as president remained solid for 30 years so long as the Indonesia economy grew strongly. When the economic crisis hit in 1997/98, Suharto's performance legitimacy disappeared and once strong support for Suharto disappeared both domestically and internationally.[7]


As the financial crisis unfolded, opposition leaders such as Amien Rais became more vocal in their criticism of Suharto and the New Order. There were rumours of splits in the armed forces, imminent riots and talk of a bloody crackdown.[8 ]

Demonstrations and riots

Shops looted and goods burned on the streets in Jakarta, 14 May 1998.

In 1997 and 1998 there were riots in various parts of Indonesia. Sometimes these riots were aimed against the Chinese-Indonesians. Some riots looked spontaneous and some looked as if they had been planned. One theory was that pro-Suharto generals were trying to weaken the forces of democracy by increasing the divisions between the orthodox and the non-orthodox Muslims, between the Muslims and the Christians and between the Chinese and the non-Chinese. Another theory was that certain generals were trying to topple Suharto. [9]

Human Rights Watch Asia reported that in the first five weeks of 1998 there were over two dozen demonstrations, price riots, bomb threats, and bombings on Java and that unrest was spreading to other islands.[5]


The Trisakti incident

At the start of May 1998, students were holding peaceful demonstrations on university campuses across the country. They were protesting against massive price rises for fuel and energy, and they were demanding that President Suharto should step down.

On May 12, students at Jakarta's Trisakti University, many of them the children of the elite, planned to march to parliament to present the government with their demands for reform. The police prevented the students from marching. Some time after 5pm, uniformed men on motorcycles appeared on the flyover which overlooks Trisakti. Shots rang out. Four students were killed. At Semanggi nine students were killed (and four more the next year).[10]

Riots of May 13-14

On the 13 and 14 May rioting across Jakarta destroyed many commercial centres in Jakarta and over 1,000 died. Ethnic Chinese were targeted.[8 ] The riots were allegedly instigated by Indonesian military members who were out of uniform. Homes were attacked and women were raped by gangs of men who wore ordinary clothing. The US State Department and many human rights groups have strongly argued that the Indonesian military and police participated and incited the rioting and violence against Sino-Indonesians.[11]

Over 1,000 and as many as 5,000 people died during these riots in Jakarta and other cities such as Surakarta. Many victims died in burning malls and supermarkets but some were shot or beaten to death. A government minister reported the damage or destruction of 2,479 shop-houses, 1,026 ordinary houses, 1,604 shops, 383 private offices, 65 bank offices, 45 workshops, 40 shopping malls, 13 markets, and 12 hotels.

Alleged involvement of the military in planning the riots

Father Sandyawan Sumardi, a 40-year-old Jesuit priest and son of a police chief, led an independent investigation into the events of May 1998. As a member of the Team of Volunteers for Humanitarian Causes he interviewed people who had witnessed the alleged involvement of the military in organizing the riots and rapes.

A security officer alleged that Kopassus (special forces) officers had ordered the burning down of a bank; a taxi driver reported hearing a man in a military helicopter encouraging people on the ground to carry out looting; shop-owners at a Plaza claimed that, before the riots, military officers tried to extract protection money; a teenager claimed he and thousands of others had been trained as protesters; a street child alleged that Kopassus officers ordered him and his friends to become rioters; there was a report of soldiers being dressed up as students and then taking part in rioting; eyewitnesses spoke of muscular men with short haircuts arriving in military-style trucks and directing attacks on Chinese homes and businesses.

In May 1998, thousands of Indonesian citizens were murdered and raped... ¶ The Joint Fact Finding Team established to inquire into the 1998 massacres found that there were serious and systematic human rights violations throughout Jakarta. The Team also found that rioters were encouraged by the absence of security forces, and that the military had played a role in the violence. The Team identified particular officials who should be held to account.¶ The Special Rapporteur on violence against women... also pointed to evidence suggesting that the riots had been organized (E/CN.4/1999/68/Add.3, para. 45).[12]

American Defence Secretary William Cohen was in Jakarta in January 1998, where he visited both General Wiranto and General Prabowo. The CIA chief had also been a recent visitor to Jakarta. The CIA and the Pentagon were close to both Prabowo and Wiranto.

Resignation of Suharto

Suharto reads his address of resignation at Merdeka Palace on 21 May 1998, accompanied by Vice President B. J. Habibie, who succeeds him.

Reportedly the military was split. There was said to be a power struggle between Prabowo and Wiranto. Both generals claimed to be loyal to Suharto. Some feared factionalism could lead to a civil war. [1]

Some of Suharto's former allies deserted him. Wiranto allowed students to occupy Parliament. Wiranto reported to Suharto on May 20 that Suharto no longer had the support of the army.

Suharto was forced to resign on May 21 and was replaced by Habibie, his Vice President.

In 1998 one of the key generals was Prabowo, son of former Finance Minister Dr. Sumitro Djojohadikusumo who may have once worked with the British and the Americans against Sukarno. Prabowo had learned about terrorism at Fort Bragg and Fort Benning in the US. [2] In May 1998, Prabowo was commander of Kostrad, the strategic reserve, the regiment Suharto commanded when he took power in 1965. Prabowo's friend Muchdi ran Kopassus (special forces) and his friend Sjafrie ran the Jakarta Area Command. General Wiranto, the overall head of the military, was seen as a rival to Prabowo.

Allegedly, late on the evening on May 21. Prabowo arrived at the presidential palace and demanded that he be made chief of the armed forces. Reportedly, Habibie escaped from the palace. On May 22, Prabowo was sacked as head of Kostrad. Wiranto remained as chief of the armed forces. Wiranto's troops began removing the students from the parliament building.President Habibie and General Prabowo

Continued military influence

One result of the May riots was that the military appeared to remain the power behind the throne. During a time of widespread fear, the military could claim to offer stability, though it was they who had perhaps help to orchestrate the disorder. In 2004, General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected president. Each of the three presidential tickets in 2009 included a general as candidate for either president or vice president.

The aftermath

Not so often reported were the silent departure of families and wealth from the country. The emigrants were not exclusively of Chinese descents but also include wealthy natives or pribumis and Soeharto’s cronies. The immediate destination was Singapore, where some stayed permanently while others moved on to Australia, USA and Canada. Many of these families returned when the political situation stabilized a few years later.


  1. ^ "Indonesia Floats the Rupiah, And It Drops More Than 6%". The New York Times: p. D6. 15 August 1997. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/15/business/indonesia-floats-the-rupiah-and-it-drops-more-than-6.html. Retrieved 25 September 2009.  
  2. ^ Monash Asia Institute (1999), p. 1
  3. ^ Monash Asia Institute (1999), p. v.
  4. ^ Friend (2003), p. 313.
  5. ^ a b c Friend (2003), p. 314.
  6. ^ Friend (2003), p. 314; Monash Asia Institute (1999), p. v
  7. ^ Monash Asia Institute (1999), p. 1.
  8. ^ a b Monash Asia Institute (1999), p. viii
  9. ^ Tinder-box or conspiracy?
  10. ^ reliefweb.int
  11. ^ fas.org
  12. ^ http://www.ahrchk.net/statements/mainfile.php/2003statement/87/ "INDONESIA: Five years after May 1998 rights, those responsible for the atrocities remain at large," Asian Human Rights Commission statement April 7 2003

See also


  • Friend, Theodore (2003). Indonesian Destinies. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN0-674-01834-6.  

Further reading

  • Chandra, Siddharth and Douglas Kammen. (2002). "Generating Reforms and Reforming Generations: Military Politics in Indonesia’s Transition to Democracy." World Politics, Vol. 55, No. 1.
  • Dijk, Kees van. 2001. A country in despair. Indonesia between 1997 and 2000. KITLV Press, Leiden, ISBN 90-6718-160-9
  • Kammen, Douglas and Siddharth Chandra (1999). A Tour of Duty: Changing Patterns of Military Politics in Indonesia in the 1990s. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Modern Indonesia Project Publication No. 75.

External links


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