Defeat for prominent Suharto critic Rais?


A march of a million people fails to materialise, lowering political tempers even as it raises doubts about Islamic leader Amien Rais’ influence

THE cancellation of a planned march that was expected to bring a million people into the streets of Jakarta yesterday lowered political temperatures here, although cries for change continued to ring loud.

May 20 was supposed to have been a day of reckoning, with government critic and Islamic scholar Amien Rais leading the masses into the streets to topple long-serving President Suharto from power.

Thousands of foreigners evacuated the country fearing that this would lead to even more riots in Jakarta still recovering from an orgy of violence last week.

But all the hype and media publicity of a possible Tiananmen-type incident here fizzled away when Mr Rais appeared on television yesterday morning to abandon his plan because he feared it would lead to “bloodshed and untold damages”.

Some observers believe that his volte-face dented his political credibility and raised questions among his followers about his real intentions.

“This is a defeat for him because he failed to keep his promise,” said Golkar legislator Din Syamsudin. “Many were hoping that he would lead the charge to bring down the President.”

Mr Syamsudin said that the failed march was in fact a double-blow for Mr Rais, who failed to get an invitation from Mr Suharto to join other Muslim leaders at a meeting with the Indonesian leader on Tuesday.

“Other Muhammadiyah leaders were invited but not him. That could have affected his prestige with the masses,” he said. In fact, sources close to the Muhammadiyah, the country’s second largest Muslim group which Mr Rais heads, said that the Islamic leader had difficulty getting groups to join him for the march.

“His public statement that his intention was to prevent bloodshed does not hold ground,” said one source. “The main problem was getting supporters.”

Some sources believe that his links to a faction of the powerful armed forces (Abri) somewhat backfired, making it easier for the military to exert pressure on him to cancel his plans.

Others contend that the Islamic leader did have genuine problems in that he had to confront a 20,000-strong military in the streets that threatened to crack down on rioters and looters.

Noted lawyer and activist Mulya Lubis said: “This is not a defeat for him. On the contrary, it is a victory and shows all of us that Amien Rais is a very rationale leader. He could have brought the people out on the streets, but at what price?”

Mr Lubis insists that despite cancelling the march, Mr Rais was still able to “apply pressure” on the President through his meeting with students.

Thousands of students besieged the Indonesian Parliament for a third consecutive day yesterday and vowed to stay on until Mr Suharto resigns, lending support to Mr Rais and other intellectuals who said that the Indonesian leader’s days in power were numbered.

Mr Rais, who joined the more than 15,000 students from 32 universities yesterday, said that the “task of the nation is to topple Suharto without bloodshed”.

He said: “Our fight has produced results. I hope Parliament, which usually never stands up for itself, would gain courage with all your support.

“I am sure that his days are numbered. But I want to say once again that we must not shatter our unity and cohesion to bring him down.”

As he spoke, students roared with approval as they themselves had been urging other Indonesians to push ahead until the long-serving leader stepped down.

Yesterday, the students had a field day in the compound where security was virtually non-existent. Throughout the day, they chanted political slogans and sang songs, including one entitled, “For you my country, we give our body and soul”.

They became braver in their banners and placards.

They dragged a carton cut-out with a photograph of Mr Suharto’s face up the stairs of the Parliament assembly hall. Then they staged mock funeral prayers before hanging it from a beam to the applause of the crowd that chanted, “Hang Suharto!”

They also unfurled a seven-foot-high black banner written in white urging, “Return sovereignty to the people”. It added that students were demanding a special session of the People’s Consultative Assembly to elect a new President.

The students stuck mostly to their own university groupings. Some milled about preparing more anti-Suharto banners and talking to dozens of reporters, while others took some time off to queue in front of pay phones to tell their parents they were camping in the Parliament grounds.

Posted in Indonesia