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Suharto To Relinquish Presidency

May 19, 1998

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ Succumbing to protests, President Suharto announced plans today to end his 32-year authoritarian rule, saying he would step down after introducing long called-for political reforms and holding parliamentary elections.

Suharto said in a somber, 15-minute nationally televised speech that the elections would be held ``as soon as possible.″ But thousands of angry student protesters besieged the Parliament, demanding he quit now.

Some feared the reform process could take months under the aegis of the powerful military, which supports Suharto.

Skeptical student leaders said they would step up anti-government protests. Students gathered at Parliament before the announcement and their numbers swelled to 15,000 after Suharto spoke.

About 100 climbed its roof on two occasions, waving flags and banners. Others staged a sit-in on the ground floor of the legislative complex.

The 76-year-old Suharto’s decision to relinquish power follows continuous protests and days of rioting in which 500 people were killed and thousands of buildings were looted and torched. Indonesia’s economy is in ruins.

In his speech, Suharto said he will remain in office while he readies the country of 202 million people for a new political era.

``I will not be prepared to be elected any more,″ he said. ``I have taken the decision as president to implement and lead the national reform immediately.″

From Singapore to Seoul, Asia’s battered markets took heart from Suharto’s announcement.

Nowhere was the reaction as strong as in beleaguered Indonesia. Although trading volume was low, the JSX Composite Index surged 6 percent on Suharto’s announcement. The rupiah currency, which had touched 14,000 against the dollar, rebounded to 11,900.

``The market is bouncing on optimism that there will be no further bloodshed,″ Andre Cita, head of institutional sales at PT Bahana Securities, said after Suharto’s announcement.

Suharto spoke in a deep monotone and with his head down as he read from the text, sometimes pausing for several seconds.

He said he would appoint a special reform council to draft new laws for the elections and change the structure of Parliament.

The general election would be conducted based on the new laws and a new president would be appointed later by a special assembly, made up of lawmakers and other government appointees.

Suharto did not give a timetable for change, but stressed he would follow the country’s 1945 constitution.

``If we do not uphold the constitution, the country will be finished,″ he said, adding that ``bloodshed and even civil war″ could result.

Suharto has been Asia’s longest-serving leader. He came to power in 1966 amid social and economic chaos.

He has served six five-year terms unchallenged as head of state and was reappointed to a seventh term unanimously by a national assembly only last March. He was to have ended that term in 2003.

Suharto announced his plans to surrender power as the world’s fourth most-populous nation endures turmoil once more, with tanks on the streets, riots and protests.

Suharto’s leadership was shaken in recent months by Indonesia’s worst economic crisis in 30 years.

Discontent spilled into the streets last week when student protests were followed by wild riots by rampaging mobs.

Suharto spoke as thousands of students besieged the country’s parliament. A group of students carried off an official portrait of the president from one office.

It was the second straight day that students have staged big demonstrations at the Parliament.

``Change Suharto right now,″ the students chanted in front of a line of soldiers.

Many sang songs and others waved Indonesian flags after being allowed into the Parliament’s grounds by troops.

More than 20 armored vehicles were positioned around the Presidential Palace, where Suharto has his offices. At least two barbed roadblocks were set up nearby.

Troops and tanks were deployed across the capital.

Two British men, meanwhile, were killed in apparent robbery attempts over the last few days in riot-torn Jakarta, the British embassy said.

Suharto’s rule was thrown into the balance Monday when the speaker of Parliament said lawmakers would demand Suharto’s resignation for the sake of national unity.

But the all-powerful military, dominated by Suharto loyalists and former aides, quashed that idea, saying it was unconstitutional.

Suharto, however, later bowed to overwhelming calls for him to leave, not only from critics but former members of his ruling elite.

Security was also stepped up around Suharto’s residence.

Big crowds were seen lining up at the Australian Embassy to apply for visas. It was unclear how many other diplomatic missions were still accepting visa applications from Indonesians citizens.

A U.S. Embassy official said its visa office was closed. Several days ago the embassy evacuated non-essential staff members from Jakarta.

It and other embassies and overseas companies also arranged for the evacuation of thousands of foreigners.

Update hourly