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Suharto Won’t Give Step Down Date

May 20, 1998

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ Student protesters forced their way into the halls of Parliament and army tanks took up position around President Suharto’s white-columned palace Tuesday, both sides bracing for new clashes after Indonesia’s authoritarian leader said he will step down _ but not just yet.

``Hang Suharto! Hang Suharto!″ the more than 15,000-strong student contingent chanted from inside the echoing, marble-trimmed building, unfurling banners demanding reforms from the roof of parliament in a protest unlike any other in Indonesia’s history.

Under pressure from economic crises, months of student protests and now riots in the capital of his country, Suharto told the nation Tuesday that he would end his 32-year reign _ but only at a still-unspecified time, and only after he oversees government reforms, a Cabinet shuffle, and new elections.

``This decision comes from my feeling of responsibility in an effort to save the country from destruction,″ Suharto said in a sometimes somber, 15-minute speech televised nationally.

He said his insistence on making long-refused reforms before he steps down should not be interpreted as ``resistance on my part to step down.″ But Indonesia’s increasingly aggressive opposition took it as just that.

Students pushed their way into the halls and onto the roof of Parliament, occupying the building a day ahead of what was touted to be the largest rally yet in months of growing anti-government protests. They remained there Wednesday morning.

But early Wednesday, Indonesia’s most prominent opposition leader, Amien Rais, canceled the new demonstration planned for outside the presidential palace. Speaking on national radio and television, Rais urged his followers to stay home and avoid clashes and bloodshed.

Students were likely to continue with their protests despite Rais’ appeal. He has supported their rallies, but has exercised little daily control over them.

Thousands of soldiers used barbed wire and tanks to seal off an area of more than a square mile around a park adjacent to the presidential palace.

By dawn Wednesday, the anniversary of the start of Indonesia’s independence movement, heavily armed soldiers stood by the barbed wire and wooden barricades along with tanks and armored vehicles.

The newspaper Republika said 150,000 military personnel had been deployed in the capital of about 11 million people.

Military helicopters swooped low over the city.

While much of the public has turned against Suharto in the face of soaring food and fuel prices, Indonesia’s top military brass are backing the president, a retired general who himself came to power in time of turmoil in 1966 _ and has ruled with little tolerance for dissent ever since.

Students cheered and applauded the lone, 10-member contingent of soldiers who entered the grounds of Parliament on Tuesday. Women students handed them flowers.

The army largely has acted with restraint against the students: It was police who fired on a crowd of student demonstrators earlier this month, setting off days of looting and burning in Jakarta last week. More than 500 people died, most of them looters trapped inside stores set afire by the mobs.

Environment Minister Juwono Sudarsono said Suharto hopes to push through reform and resign by year’s end as head of the world’s fourth-most populous nation.

Suharto himself did not give a timetable for the reforms, saying elections would be held ``as soon as possible.″

But he stressed that he would follow the country’s 1945 constitution, which could mean at least three to six months before a new vote.

He promised to appoint a special reform council to draft new laws for parliamentary elections and change the structure of Parliament. After the elections, a new president would be appointed by a special assembly, made up of lawmakers and government appointees.

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

Rais, the opposition leader, estimated it would take up to two years to hold elections. But he predicted a speedy end for Suharto.

``He will be defeated very soon,″ Rais, who is promoting himself as a possible president, told reporters. ``He does not know what is going on in his own society.″

Apprehensive residents of the capital stocked up on food and other supplies.

In Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, soldiers with sticks beat students Tuesday during a rally against the president, injuring 19 protesters, a witness said.

Suharto’s promise to step down won the cautious praise of other nations. Some called it the first sign of hope for Indonesia in months, while others said they would wait to see if he follows through. And most countries continued flying charter planes into Indonesia to evacuate their citizens.

Suharto was reappointed to a seventh term unanimously by a national assembly in March. He was to have ended that term in 2003.

His rule was thrown into uncertainty Monday when the speaker of Parliament said lawmakers would demand Suharto’s resignation. But the all-powerful military quashed the idea with a statement of support for the president.

Fearing more unrest, crowds of Indonesians lined up Tuesday at the Australian Embassy to apply for visas. The U.S. Embassy closed its visa office after sending nonessential staff and hundreds of other Americans out of Jakarta.

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