Habibie puts up stout defence

As he defends himself in parliament, security forces outside clash with protesters who want him to resign.

PRESIDENT B.J. Habibie, fighting to stay in power, yesterday put up a stout defence of his 17 months in power, in a make or break speech that could seal his political fate.

Speaking to 700 members of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) from a 53-page text, as security forces clashed with thousands of demonstrators demanding his resignation outside parliament here, the embattled leader made a case for his achievements.

The President, who started his speech half an hour late and had to enter the parliament building by the back door because of the protesters, spoke for nearly two hours – punctuated by occasional boos, jeers and at least two interruptions by legislators from the gallery – as he outlined the difficulties of inheritance and the steps he took to turn around a nation in crisis.

As he spoke, thousands of students and supporters of rival political parties massed outside the parliament complex and confronted riot squads who fired tear gas and water cannons at them.

In his speech, Dr Habibie claimed credit for setting in motion a reform process that “has achieved so much” in his 512 days in power.

“As an ordinary human being, I am aware that the entirety of the crisis, which is the accumulation of problems and damage which has gone on for quite a long time, is not possible to fix it in a short time,” he said.

But his government was able to achieve some success, he added, particularly in reviving the battered Indonesian economy. Referring sometimes to statistics and economic charts from a 250-page appendix to his main text, he noted that his government had strengthened the rupiah and reduced inflation over the last year.

A 350 trillion rupiah (S$70 billion) bank-restructuring programme had also revived the flagging financial sector.

Analysts said that Dr Habibie, in his stubborn way, showed little sign that he was ready to give away the Oct 20 election that pitted him against Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri of the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) and Islamic scholar Abdurrahman Wahid.

But they noted that his answers to thorny questions that had dogged his administration over the last year could fall short of expectations with legislators.

At the expense of incurring the wrath of nationalists, Dr Habibie also urged the MPR to allow the East Timorese, who voted for independence in a referendum in August, to let them go their own way.

He also maintained that the government had pushed for a “fair and transparent legal process” over the Bank Bali loan scandal that involved several members of his election campaign team.

But he appeared to be more open on the issue of investigations into former president Suharto.

While the case had to be dropped due to a lack of evidence, he said the probe could be reopened if more evidence was produced and that investigations into Suharto’s cronies would continue.

Referring to efforts to promote a clean government, he said: “We are determined that whoever is guilty of corruption, collusion and nepotism should be prosecuted according to the prevailing laws.”

The remarks drew boos from the gallery.

The MPR is expected to decide during the weekend whether to accept Dr Habibie’s accountability speech.

Three major parties have indicated that they expect to reject the speech.

‘My government has set in motion a reform process that has brought recovery to the nation.’

– Dr Habibie

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