Students get closer to parliament

As military blockade prevents protesters from staging sit-in, Indonesia’s generals consider options.

THOUSANDS of student protesters began converging within sight of parliament complex late last evening but were foiled from staging a sit-in by a military blockade.

The deteriorating situation led the country’s top generals to consider their options should the situation not improve, sources said.

A meeting chaired by Abri Commander General Wiranto last night drew up two scenarios, they said. One was for President B.J. Habibie to resign and be replaced by either Gen Wiranto or the Sultan of Yogyakarta.

The other, and more likely one, was for the President to stay on, but with Gen Wiranto, now seen as his main pillar, as his vice-president.

Either one of these scenarios is, however, likely to come into play only if the military allows students to occupy Parliament, bringing the current special session of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) to a halt. But it was unclear how either would improve the situation.

An attempt was also being made last night for all the five MPR faction leaders to meet highly respected Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid in a bid to “ward off radicalism”.

Golkar faction leader Marzuki Darusman, who agreed to arrange the meeting with Mr Wahid, told The Straits Times: “We were hoping to work out some sort of pre-emptive situation, but the question is whether it would still be useful or is too late.”

Mr Wahid, along with the Sultan of Yogyakarta, popular Muslim leader Amien Rais and democracy icon Megawati Soekarnoputri, had at the insistence of students met on Tuesday to issue an eight point statement which endorsed implicitly Dr Habibie’s presidency until after a general election next year.

Their demands were also perceived to be more moderate than the students’ and in keeping with deliberations going on currently in the MPR.

Only one demand, the holding of indirect presidential elections by next August, barely three months after the general election, was rejected by most factions as impracticable.

Mounting student protests yesterday have, however, led top decision-makers, especially the generals, to ask if the time had come for President Habibie to step down to defuse tensions.

Others, however, say that forcing him out would lead to anarchy and could lead to counter-demonstrations by his supporters from other Islamic groups.

As students, estimated by their leaders to total 40,000, began converging on Parliament through the streets of central Jakarta, troops tried initially to stop them at different junctions, at times firing shots, tear gas and water cannon, and staging baton charges at the protesters. Witnesses said several students were injuried in clashes.

But troops began allowing students through, dismantling some road blocks, in an apparent policy reversal as the numbers of protesters grew.

About 10,000 reached a military blockade barely 2 km from parliament, but foiled from advancing further, retreated later to a nearby campus with pledges to return today.

Military sources said General Wiranto, who yesterday morning apologised publicly for the beating up of three Indonesian journalists by soldiers during a clash with students the day before, had decided “too much was at risk to take action” against the students.

Mr Marzuki outlined the military’s dilemma: “They’re in a bind. They can’t do anything to ward off the students. To shoot them is to shoot themselves.”

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