Suharto, May 1998. Vice President Habibie at Suharto's side.
In the days that followed, I spent a lot of time watching the TV news in my hotel bedroom.
Some of Suharto’s former allies in parliament, seeing the way the wind was blowing, were talking about impeaching the president.
Armed Forces Chief Wiranto still seemed to be supporting Suharto but was talking of the need for modest reforms. On May 19th, protesting students had started to occupy parliament and what was significant was that Wiranto’s soldiers did not appear to be stopping them.
Indeed, the students first arrived at parliament in military transport. This was an indication that the military might be playing a double-game. It looked as if they wanted to ease Suharto out, but in a way that would leave them, and not the pro-democracy protesters, in power.
Activists were planning to hold a vast demonstration in the centre of Jakarta on May 20th and there were fears that the military might stage a Tiananmen-Square-style massacre, in order to show who was boss. On May 19th, Suharto seemed to be playing for time: he promised new elections and promised that neither he nor his vice-president, Habibie, would seek re-election.
General Prabowo and General Wiranto
On the evening of May 19th I met Carmen for dinner in our hotel’s dark-furnished Mediterranean restaurant.
"Most of the rest of the staff are being evacuated," said Carmen, as she eyed her selection of Mezzes. "The embassy advised expats to leave before the big demonstration tomorrow. Rumour has it that the army is split between supporters of Wiranto and supporters of Prabowo."
"Meaning that one general might attack another?"
"I was talking to someone beside the hotel swimming pool. Her husband works at the Australian Embassy. Word is that on the streets there are three rival forces. Wiranto’s tanks, Prabowo’s tanks and the tanks of the marines."
"This aubergine and tomato dip is rather good," I commented.
"It’s got tahini and garlic in it," said Carmen, a keen cook.
"The marines are traditionally more sympathetic to the ordinary people," I said. "They won’t like what’s being going on."
"That’s right. They won’t want any massacres."
"You mentioned Wiranto and Prabowo?"
"One rumour is that the riots allowed combat troops to be brought into Jakarta in large numbers. Ideal for some general wanting to grab power." Carmen gave one of her quieter chuckles.
"Prabowo or Wiranto."
"Sounds like stalemate."
"There’s cinnamon on this butter bean and tomato mix," said Carmen. "Real Greek dish."
"I’m not sure I like this squid."
"Tomorrow is the big demonstration," said Carmen quietly. "Led by Amien Rais, who is possibly working for the Americans."
I looked at Carmen and she wasn’t smiling. "Amien Rais? The Moslem leader?"
"He was educated in America."
"He doesn’t always speak in favour of America."
"Anyway, he’s leading one million people into the centre of Jakarta. There could be violence." Carmen did not giggle.
"According to the TV, the army will be there in force."
"Now here’s the big question," said Carmen, putting down her wine glass. "Back on the morning of the big Jakarta riots, why did the army do nothing to stop the trouble? Why did the army wait until night-time before putting tanks on the streets? Why did the top generals leave Jakarta on the morning of the riots and go off to East Java?"
"Do you think the entire army was involved in some plot?"
"No. Only certain key generals."
"And what about the vice-president? They say he has little support either in the army or among the people. But, according to the constitution, he takes over, if Suharto steps down."
"Habibie," said Carmen, with a happy giggle. "He’s a Suharto crony. Close family friend. Very rich man."
On the morning of the 20th of May, the TV news programmes reported that the area around Jakarta’s Monas National Monument, where the million-strong protest was due to take place, had been cordoned off and occupied by 80,000 troops. The main streets were being patrolled by troops, armed with assault rifles. Judging that the army might well carry out a massacre, the Jakarta anti-Suharto demonstration was called off by one of its leaders, Amien Rais.
But the pressure was building on Suharto. 500,000 marched in Yogyakarta and large demonstrations were held in Medan, Bandung and Surakarta. Harmoko, the speaker of parliament, declared that parliament would choose a new president if Suharto had not resigned and handed over power by May 22nd. Eleven cabinet ministers resigned.
It later transpired that much plotting had been going on behind the scenes.
Perhaps the three key figures were General Prabowo who was chief of the powerful Kostrad regiment, General Wiranto who was armed forces chief, and Habibie who was Indonesia’s vice-president.
Reportedly Wiranto went to President Suharto on the evening of the 20th of May and told him that he, Suharto, no longer had the support of the army.
Allegedly Wiranto also spoke at some point to Habibie and insisted that Prabowo should be demoted.
Friends of Prabowo later claimed that Habibie promised to promote Prabowo to the position of armed forces chief.
On the morning of May the 21st, the TV news showed Suharto’s speech of resignation. Habibie was declared to be the new president. My initial reaction was one of great relief. It looked as if there was a chance of a return to stability.
Some weeks later there were press reports of a dramatic incident that allegedly happened late on the evening on May 21st.
According to a ‘senior military official’, General Prabowo, accompanied by troops, arrived at the presidential palace and demanded that he be made boss of the armed forces.
One report spoke of a loyal army officer helping Habibie and his family make their escape from the palace.
It is difficult to tell how much of this might be disinformation.
What we do know is that, on May the 22nd, Prabowo was sacked as head of Kostrad while Wiranto remained as chief of the armed forces.
Also on the 22nd of May, Wiranto’s troops began ‘escorting’ or ‘evicting’ the students from the parliament building.
In the coming days there were signs that Habibie was going to allow some moderate reforms. Two well known political prisoners were released, restrictions on press freedom were eased and there were promises of fresh elections But it was clear that Habibie was going to find it difficult to win popular approval. Some groups, such as reformist students, began calling for his resignation.
On May the 26th, the British Embassy having declared that it was safe to return, I made a happy journey back to my Jakarta home. As I had noted before, most of Jakarta looked untouched by the riots. Reportedly as many as 5,000 buildings had been damaged, but then Jakarta , a city with a population much bigger than that of London, has a lot of buildings.
As I unpacked my bags, the doorbell rang. It was handsome Hermanto and I ushered him into the lounge.
"Welcome back, mister," said the beaming boy.
"No more riots?" I asked.
"Suharto has resigned," said Hermanto, eyes twinkling.
"Are you pleased?"
"Suharto is very old." Hermanto’s now impassive expression suggested he still felt it necessary to be careful what he said. Suharto had stepped down, but the army was still in charge.
"I’m pleased to be back, but my shoulders are aching."
"My father does massage. Do you want him to come round?"
Within ten minutes, Hermanto’s dad, a small, smiling, muscular man with kindly eyes, was squeezing my toes.
"Did you know there were going to be riots on 14th May?" I asked my masseur.
"I knew. I do massage for a very important policeman who lives in Bintaro Jaya. He told me the riots were planned in advance at military headquarters."
Next morning my driver reported for duty. He looked relaxed and cheerful.
"Everything OK?" I asked Mo. "Did you manage to make the usual visits to kampungs and hospitals?"
"Yes. Everyone got their money and medicine."
Mo took a bundle of hospital receipts from his pocket and handed them over.
"Mr Kent," said Mo, speaking softly and shifting his feet, "there was a slight problem. A small part of the money went missing from the biscuit tin that the maid was guarding."
I made a quick decision not to make a fuss. I was so relieved to be back.