Violence in Jakarta as mob, soldiers clash

National assembly reviews Habibie’s fate while skirmishes in the streets continue for the second day.

SECURITY forces fought pitched battles with thousands of demonstrators yesterday, raising political temperatures here as the national assembly reviewed the fate of Dr B.J. Habibie ahead of Indonesia’s first contested presidential poll next week.

Troops and police fired warning shots and volleys of tear gas to ward off mobs pelting them with rocks and Molotov cocktails during a second straight day of street protests, which grew in intensity as the day wore on.

In the morning, about 5,000 students and other protesters converged outside the parliament building. But after brief skirmishes with troops, they were forced away and headed up to the central business district’s main street as office workers looked on.

As they were pushed away, the angry crowd torched a car and three motorcycles. More than 40,000 troops and civilian militiamen have been deployed to provide security in the city.

Jakarta’s main thoroughfare, Jalan Sudirman, saw the worst of the violence. Protesters taunted security forces with anti-government chants of “Hang Habibie! Hang Habibie!” and “Soldiers are dogs”.

As bricks and rocks flew in their direction, troops from the elite Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) and police responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets in the air, and chased demonstrators into narrow alleys and side roads. Reports said that up to 70 people were injured. At dusk, with skirmishes still continuing but at much reduced levels, clouds of tear gas hung over the area.

In parliament, 700 members of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) evaluated Dr Habibie’s speech accounting for his performance and policies during his 17 months in power.

Seven MPR factions gave their views on his speech, made on Thursday, when he put up a stout defence of his rule since taking over from former president Suharto.

Only the Indonesian Democratic Party – Perjuangan (PDI-P) of Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri was hard-hitting in its assessment of the speech.

Describing Dr Habibie as “a crony of Suharto”, the PDI-P’s representative also maintained that the President had done little to restore political and economic stability.

He highlighted continued human rights violations and the failure to fight corruption as black marks against the President’s administration and argued that “Habibie has not listened to the aspirations of the people”.

The representative also attacked the President for not consulting the MPR before deciding to hold a referendum in East Timor.

Ms Megawati had earlier rejected Dr Habibie’s speech, telling reporters that it was “far from reality” as it did not reflect what was happening on the ground.

Representatives of other parties in the MPR expressed some reservations about the speech, but were much more moderate in their tone and criticism.

Golkar, which has nominated Dr Habibie as its presidential candidate, supported his economic accomplishments and the decision to let East Timor go.

But it pressed him to act against Mr Suharto and his cronies, and those involved in the Bank Bali scandal.

The Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP) hit at the military’s role in politics and its poor human rights record, but stopped short of criticising Dr Habibie for the on-going violence in some provinces.

Deliberations of the speech were expected to continue over the weekend with a decision – by vote or through consensus – on Monday. A rejection could scuttle his chances of being elected as the country’s fourth president.

But the Antara national news agency yesterday quoted MPR speaker Amien Rais as saying that Dr Habibie could still stand for election even if the MPR rejected his speech – although the quality of his candidacy would be diminished.

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