The Post-Soeharto Era

Answer this: Which is the most unfortunate country in the world for the past few years? Probably you have a lot of names in your mind already. Like Russia, Yugoslavia, or maybe Taiwan. But to me, when I was being asked this question some time ago, only one name came up : Indonesia.

Indonesia has no shortage of problems since Soeharto's re-election as president for the seventh term in March 1998. There were the worst rioting on the streets in the 32-year history of the New Order, the anti-Chinese outrage and the economic downturn, to name a few. Soeharto stepped down, eventually, after 72 days on 21 May. With the fall of the dictator, someone predicted that the problems would be gone too. But they were completely wrong. During B.J. Habibie's presidency, Indonesia's problems were still there. They were worse, not better. And there were more arising gradually. After failing to put an end to the Soeharto-era corruption, losing East Timor, and being tainted by the Bank Bali scandal, Habibie was replaced by Abdurrahman Wahid, one of the four key non-government figures who also seems like the most promising president to bring Indonesia out of misery forever. Some Inodnesians saw light in the future, but not for long. Almost a year after President Wahid inherited the throne, sadly again, the problems ARE still there. With the recent bombing in Jakarta, the future of Indonesia remains unclear. The following will discuss the "5W1H" of the happenings in the Post-Soeharto era and the prospects of this unfortunate country's future.

The Fall of Soeharto

On 10 March 1998, Soeharto was re-elected president of Indonesia for a seventh term by the handpicked People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), which represented the military and civilian elite of the New Order. I remembered when I knew about this, I was in a bus stuck at the entrance of the Lion Rock Tunnel. There was radio news broadcast and when it mentioned about Soeharto's victory, I was like, it's him again? I was a bit overreacted about this, even to Indonesians. Indonesians were unaffected by this news, probably because they knew this would certainly happen. After all, who would say NO in front of Soeharto? Yes. There was student opposition afterwards. But it was just a low-level one. Soeharto had prevailed over more substantial student opposition in the past. The elite was still behind him. Everything seemed right for the dictator.

Soeharto mentioned about his intention to serve as president for the full five-year term in his acceptance speech delivered on 11 March. But he did not mention anything about restoring the economy, though it was deteriorating. The United States was upset about it. Foreign and domestic Chinese investors had lost their confidence in this country. His vice president, B. J. Habibie was disliked across the elite. So after 72 days, Soeharto resigned and Habibie sworn in as the country's third president on 21 May 1998.

"Soeharto Go To Hell With Your Plan - Step Down Now" was one of the banners used by the students in Jakarta on 20 May, a day before Soeharto's resignation (Geoff Forrester 1998, P. 42). Why did the students hate their own then president that much? If Soeharto had been ruling Indonesia for 32 years already and had all the advantage I mentioned above, why couldn't he continue to do so? And why would it be in 1998? Was there a particular event that had triggered this political upheaval at that particular point of time?

After reading what happened around the time of Soeharto's resignation, I think the dictator's fall can be explained by a few factors and a specific trigger.

The first factor is, quite obvious, the deteriorating economy. The Asian Economic Crisis began in Thailand on September 1997, the political uncertainty brought by Soeharto's health condition and dispute between him and the IMF in January 1998 eventually caused the collapse of rupiah. The financial mechanisms of international trade had failed and major firms and banks became insolvent. Moreover, the inflation rate jumped up to 50% per month; the per capita incomes dropped from US$1,200 in early 1996 to US$300 by the beginning of 1998; and the stock-market valuation of listed companies crashed from US$118 billion to US$17 billion! And yet, Soeharto did not seem to have any strategy to restore the economy.

The second factor is Soeharto's erratic behavior form the beginning of 1998. It seemed like he wanted to create a dynasty. He made his close friend Mohamad Hasan the minister for Trade. But it became obvious very soon that Mr. Hasan was not suitable for the job. Then Soeharto allowed his own daughter Tutut to choose her cronies for the cabinet, which brought up speculation that his daughter would be his likely successor. Also, as I have mentioned earlier, Soeharto infuriated the IMF, an organization which he should not mess with because it provides assistance to support the Indonesian economy, especially at the time when it was at stake.

The worsening economy and Soeharto's erratic behavior, together with his health condition had eventually created the third factor: the military and civilian elite had lost faith in Soeharto's presidency. They started to question if Soeharto was able to lead Indonesia out of the crisis. But except Amien Rais and Megawati Soekarnoputri, few spoke out openly. Most of the elite did not part with Soeharto until the last few days before he resigned. General Wiranto, the then commander of the Armed Forces and Minister for Defense and Security, still showed his support to Soeharto two days before his commander-in-chief resigned. Even Habibie continued to express admiration of his mentor.

No one dared to mention the "r" word. But it was Harmoko, speaker of the parliament, who asked Soeharto to resign on 18 May. As Ken Young says in his article, "Soeharto was not brought down by devious rivals among the central elite, but by men who struggle to shake off the habits of deference." (Geoff Forrester 1998, P. 104) With such an important minister in Soeharto's New Order asking his superior to step down, the dictator found himself facing only one way ahead: the road to resignation.

The above then led us to another question: what made the elite, which had been loyal and supportive to Soeharto for so many years, to turn away from their superior in mid May 1998?

I think this is because of one person : Lieutenant-General Prabowo, Soeharto's son-in-law.

In March 1998, Prabowo took over the Army Strategic Command (Kostrad). Promoting Prabowo was another sign of Soeharto's plan to build a dynasty, but this provided the specific trigger which ultimately brought him down. Prabowo's informal power was much greater than his predecessors. Beside fostered by Soeharto, he had close allies: Major General Syafrie Syamsuddin, then head of the Jakarta Garrison, and the then head of police, General Dibyo Widodo. Also, he retained influence in the Force he once leaded, the Army Special Forces (Kopassus). All these had made him a more powerful military man than General Wiranto. But that was not enough for him. This man was ambitious for more power and the only way he could succeed was to remove Wiranto. No. 1 strategy for this: make Wiranto look ineffectual and incapable while yourself look effective and loyal.

On 9 May that year, Soeharto left Indonesia for an official visit to Egypt. What a bad time to leave your country, when the place was having an unrest. But for Prabowo, it was the best time for him to perform his dirty little trick. Besides killing four demonstrating university students on 12 May (though some suggested that it was Soeharto's idea) in order to terrorize students and other demonstrators into silence, he asked the street gangs to create disorder in the city. The gang's first target was the Chinese (Prabowo hates them). They destroyed the Chinese business in Jakarta and Solo in 13-15 May. Countless Chinese women were raped. Others were terrorized or attacked. It was reported that 110,000 Chinese Indonesians fled away almost immediately. These anti-Chinese riots had been widely reported by the Hong Kong media and the people around the world started to notice that Indonesia was really in danger.

At the same time in Indonesia, the elite had found Prabowo had gone way, way too far. It obviously showed that Prabowo's evil trick had failed completely. He could not prove to the Indonesians that Wiranto was incapable, instead he's proven himself as a mad man. Everyone was shocked and decided to remove Prabowo. But Prabowo was Soeharto's son-in-law, then how on earth could they remove him? Well, only if they removed Soeharto first. The trigger had been released.

I think it was no doubt that Soeharto was shocked by the anti-Chinese riots, considering that he had a fairly good relationship with the Chinese businessmen, who had helped building up Indonesia's economy. Now his son-in-law had scared away the Chinese when the economy had deteriorated. The elite seemed walking slowly away from him. Soeharto was then deserted by all. Plus, Jakarta was in total paralysis on 20 May because the Armed Forces had sealed off the center of the capital to prevent Amien Rais from rallying huge crowds around the National Monument Square. There was no traffic except the military. No business could function. If Soeharto insisted to stay, the cost would be enormous. Maybe it was really time to go. So he met with General Wiranto at 9 that night to discuss about his resignation and asked the General to guarantee his and his family's safety. By 11pm, preparations for his resignation at 9am the following morning were well underway.

The Soeharto Era had eventually ended.


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