Indonesia's Suharto Losing Support
May. 15, 1998
JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ A major faction of President Suharto's political party turned against Indonesia's embattled leader today and further jeopardized his rule, and rioter-set fires killed at least 200 people.
The charred bodies of the looters were pulled from two burned-out shopping malls, grisly reminders of the unrest that has overtaken this southeast Asian nation this week. Some of the victims were found still clinging to the items they had stolen.
``My brother! My brother!'' cried out one man as others carried one blackened corpse from the ruins of the Yoga Plaza in East Jakarta.
Suharto held a frantic series of meetings, cutting big price increases on gasoline and other essential fuels that helped trigger the anger behind four days of deadly riots.
The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta began evacuating Americans aboard two chartered aircraft.
Many office buildings were nearly empty. Trading in the country's plunging currency, the rupiah, was halted. Banks, many of which were ransacked the day before, were closed.
Unrest intensified last week in Indonesia, a nation of many islands straddling the Indian and Pacific oceans, after Suharto introduced new austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund.
The measures, which caused food and fuel prices to jump dramatically, were a condition of the IMF's $43 billion aid package to bail Indonesia out of its worst economic crisis in decades.
Anger spilled over into the streets after police shot dead six anti-government protesters at a student protest on Tuesday. At least 20 civilians and four military personnel have been reportedly killed in violence that threatens to unravel Suharto's 32-year grip on power.
Kosgoro, one of the major factions within Suharto's ruling Golkar party, issued a statement demanding Suharto return the mandate to govern bestowed on him by Parliament.
``If he won't step down peacefully, then we must force him to leave,'' said a Kosgoro leader who spoke on condition of anonymity.
It was the first sign of open rebellion within the 76-year-old president's once-mighty political machine.
After breaking off an official visit to Egypt, Suharto returned to riot-torn Jakarta today, driving to his official residence under heavily armed escort through areas shaken by riots and looting the previous day.
'' `If the people have no confidence in me, it is not a problem for me to step down,' '' Information Minister Alwi Dahlan quoted Suharto as saying.
However, Alwi denied earlier reports the president had said that he was ready to resign, saying the process ``must be conducted constitutionally.''
The U.S. Embassy told its citizens to leave Indonesia's two largest cities of Jakarta and Surabaya ``as soon as possible,'' a move that sent even more waves of foreigners to both of Jakarta's airport in hopes of catching the next flight out.
``We're just looking to get to a safer spot,'' said Nancy Carmack, of Grand Junction, Colo., whose husband works for an oil tools company. She gave her age as ``42, but 82 today.''
The Clinton administration also postponed the visit of a high-level military delegation to Jakarta.
Even the Jakarta staff of the IMF left the country before dawn on a chartered airplane, Dow Jones Newswires reported.
Tanks and armored personnel carriers stood guard outside the city's biggest luxury hotels, as a protection from mobs marauding across this gritty metropolis of 11 million people.
Hundreds of looters have been arrested, police said.
Suharto was meeting with Vice President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, along with military commander Gen. Wiranto, who is also defense minister.
Overnight, the looters died when they were trapped inside shopping malls set ablaze by other rioters, witnesses said.
With relatives wailing around them, local residents banded together to take away the bodies burned and blackened beyond recognition. Police and rescue officials were nowhere in sight at the mall, located near slums in the Kelender section of eastern Jakarta.
Trouble flared again in the east Jakarta suburb of Matraman, where hundreds of people, including whole families, looted yet another mall. Police and soldiers stood by at first, but intervened by firing warning shots when mobs began fighting over the goods they stole.
Shopping malls, which sprang up across the city before an economic boom went bust last year, have been a favorite target of rioters. Most were too poor ever to have afforded the goods sold there and have been impoverished further by the worst economic crisis in 30 years. Even at the fire sites, some searched through the ashes scavenging for goods.
With Suharto's leadership pushed to the brink, all eyes were on Indonesia's mighty military leaders, all of them groomed by Suharto.
In a television address, Lt. Gen. Prabowo, the president's hard-line son-in-law, said there was no split within the armed forces, and repeated threats to take firm action against rioters.
Opposition leaders were becoming increasingly vocal in their demands for Suharto to quit. Amien Rais, a powerful Muslim leader, formed a new alliance with other opposition members and prominent university figures. The new assembly was immediately dubbed a ``shadow parliament.''