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Ten years on: How Suharto fell

President Suharto salutes after announcing his resignation on television on 21 May 1998

On 21 May 1998, President Suharto abruptly resigned, after ruling Indonesia with an iron hand for 32 years.

The BBC South East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head covered the tumultuous last days of Suharto and recalls some of the most dramatic moments.

1800, 4 May 1998, central Jakarta

I look out of our 16th floor bureau at the traffic. I've never seen it this bad. It is completely gridlocked as far as I can see, right down Jakarta's main thoroughfare Jalan Sudirman. Everyone is queuing for petrol, after news the government would slash subsidies the following day.

Officially, this change is part of the IMF-imposed programme of reforms to save the economy. But Suharto has slashed them much further than the IMF demanded - he seems to be deliberately provoking public anger to undermine the reform package, which he resents.

(Little do we know this will inflame the hitherto ineffective student protest movement, that it is the beginning of the end for Suharto.)

1600, 6 May, south Jakarta

I'm sitting on the roof of a one-storey building with AP cameraman Tim Deagle, watching a few dozen students confronting an equal number of police. We are next to one of Jakarta's smaller and shabbier universities, we've been there hours, and don't expect much. Students haven't been a force in Indonesian politics since the 1970s, and the universities are heavily infiltrated with military intelligence agents.

But then we see them burn a portrait of Suharto. This is bold - tarnishing the president's image is a serious crime. Suddenly the atmosphere changes. The students rush back to the university gates, a hail of stones is thrown back at the police, and for the first time I see the police raise their rifles and open fire - in the air at first, then into the crowd. They point them at us and we run for our lives over the roof and climb down a tree into the university campus. Some of the students have been hit by rubber-tipped bullets. Their injuries aren't serious, but this seems like a turning point.

1700, 8 May, Solo, central Java

My eyes sting with tear gas, and I am trying to do a piece-to-camera. We are inside another university campus, and it's like a battlefield. Ambulances come and go through the back gate, picking up injured students. At the front gate, they taunt the riot police outside. The street is littered with rocks. That night, in nearby Yogyakarta, we hear the police have beaten a protester to death. He is the first to die.

1400, 12 May, Trisakti University, Jakarta

A policeman stands at Trisakti University on 12 May 1998
The demonstration at Trisakti University turned violent

It is pouring with rain. I am sceptical about this protest. Trisakti is a university for the rich, where the children of businessmen and military officers go. The standing joke is that Trisakti students would only go out to protest after they had put on their make-up.

But this is the best-organised demonstration so far. Thousands of students have wrong-footed the security forces and poured out onto the main toll-road to the airport outside, partially blocking it. They are confronted by rows and rows of riot police. The atmosphere seems surprisingly relaxed, though. Some of the students put flowers in the gun-barrels of the police.

I head back to the bureau to file. Later we hear the Trisakti protest has turned violent. From the bureau I can see army helicopters in the sky. An Indonesian journalist phones and tells me to get down to the hospital, that there are dead students. When I get there journalists are being barred, but I manage to sneak around. In a back room I see four bodies under white sheets, and weeping families. There are rumours - later confirmed - that they were shot by snipers. I file my first report saying I think Suharto's days are numbered.

1500, 14 May, Tanah Abang, Jakarta

A man burns a cabinet in Jakarta on 14 May 1998
By 14 May there was anarchy on Jakarta's streets

The heat from the blaze in front of me has singed the hair on my hands. There are hundreds of people - the mass of urban poor - whooping wildly as they carry off looted goods from what was the Ramayana supermarket, now an inferno. Behind me a bank burns with unearthly groans and shrieks - it is owned by Suharto's closest crony, Liem Sioe Liong. There are armed marines standing nearby, but they do nothing.

Marines stand on the streets of Jakarta on 14 May 1998
Troops failed to prevent the looting and the violence

We have witnessed scenes like this throughout the day, all across the city. It is anarchy - the people of Jakarta crazily sacking their own capital. Sometimes the atmosphere is ecstatic, sometime menacing, and we have to leave quickly.

Later we learn that hundreds of ethnic Chinese have been brutally attacked, and more than a thousand looters had been burned to death. The regime is crumbling.

1800, 18 May, Army Headquarters, central Jakarta

I am waiting with a crowd of journalists for what we believe will be a key statement from Armed Forces commander General Wiranto.

Events have moved very quickly. The speaker of Suharto's famously submissive parliament has suddenly called for him to step down - and the parliament itself has been over-run with thousands of students, with the clear connivance of some soldiers. If the military turns against him, we know the president is finished.

Two hours late Wiranto walks in - but beside him is General Prabowo, Suharto's son-in-law and a man feared for his brutality and believed to be manipulating the recent chaos to shore up the regime. There have been rumours Prabowo is in disgrace - he is known to dislike Wiranto - what does his appearance mean? Wiranto's statement doesn't help clear up matters. He describes the parliamentary call for Suharto's resignation as unconstitutional - does this mean he will defend the regime with force?

0800, 20 May, central Jakarta

The streets are completely deserted, except for the military. It seems every tank or armoured car has been deployed, and there are barbed-wire blockades at every big intersection.

Amien Rais, the academic and Muslim activist who is by now the most outspoken leader of the opposition to Suharto, had called for a million-person march today through Jakarta. But on the radio this morning we hear he has cancelled it, after being warned by General Wiranto that there would be a bloodbath like Tiananmen Square if he went ahead. It is extraordinary to walk down the middle of Jakarta's great boulevards, scenes of such drama recently, in complete silence. No-one knows what the next move will be.

0915, 21 May, Jakarta

Students celebrate in Jakarta after President Suharto announces his resignation on 21 May 1998
Students celebrated the fall of Suharto on the streets of Jakarta

We are still staring in disbelief at the television in the bureau. Did he really just resign? There have been rumours from the early hours that Suharto would step down - it is front page on the Jakarta Post. But this is a man who has skilfully sidestepped every challenge to his rule for three decades. He is the consummate political survivor. Is this another ruse?

It was a typically mumbling speech, almost off-hand, televised from the presidential palace. But then he uttered the words in Indonesian "Saya berhenti", which means "I'm stopping". And he walked off.

But then we see Vice-President Habibie step up, his eyes darting about nervously, to be sworn in. We watch a huge roar of jubilation from the students in parliament when they realize Suharto has gone - but the mood darkens when they realize his diminutive protégé will replace him.

It is an anti-climactic end to an extraordinary month. But I keep reminding myself that the moment we have discussed and wondered about for so long has finally arrived. The Suharto era is over.



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