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Wednesday, December 30, 1998 Published at 02:25 GMT

Indonesia '98: A year of living dangerously

1998 brought a fiery end to the Suharto era

By Jakarta Correspondent Jonathan Head

Most Indonesians have never experienced a year like it. At times their country seemed to be on the brink of anarchy.

Jonathan Head reviews the events of 1998
The economy disintegrated; people power was born; and the man who had ruled over them for more than 30 years finally walked off the political stage.

Today the capital, Jakarta, continues to echo to the sounds of student protest - 1998 has been their year. They led the campaign to oust President Suharto and despite promises of free elections next year, they reject official pleas for them to return to the campuses.

[ image: Getting the message across]
Getting the message across
In the eyes of the students it was they who started the process of political change - so it is they who must finish it. They believe those who inherited power from Mr Suharto simply cannot be trusted to introduce real democracy.

Hasril is one of the student leaders of the loosely organised movement. He has to work in a factory to pay for his education, but he is willing to sacrifice everything for his ideals. "If I fall behind in my classes I can always catch up later," he told me. "But if the people's destiny is destroyed, how will we ever recover?"

The students have been motivated by their astonishing success against a seemingly impregnable regime. If they can get so far in a year they believe, how much more could they achieve?

To the brink

[ image: May: Jakarta burns and mobs rule]
May: Jakarta burns and mobs rule
It was the collapse of Indonesia's currency at the beginning of the year that suggested President Suharto might be faltering.

Price of basic goods rocketed and for a ruler whose legitimacy hung on his economic achievements this was a dangerous development.

Time was running out for Mr Suharto and, in an humiliating capitulation, he turned for help to the International Monetary Fund. He had to sign away expensive projects close to his heart.

But it gave him valuable breathing space - in March Mr Suharto's own rubber-stamp assembly gave him another five years as president. With no organised opposition in sight, it seemed as though nothing could stop him.

Student power

[ image: Time running out for Suharto]
Time running out for Suharto
But Mr Suharto hadn't allowed for the students. Indonesia's once dormant campuses burst into political life.

The protests were small at first, they expressed a militancy unseen in decades. The security forces responded with increasing levels of force.

For the first time I watched the police shooting at their own young people - things were going wrong.

When four students were shot dead in May there was an explosion of public anger which turned into an orgy of looting and burning.

City in flames

[ image: Breaking point]
Breaking point
Huge crowds of Jakarta's urban poor systematically sacked their own city, blaming it all on the president.

More than 1,000 people were killed and hundreds of buildings were destroyed. The soldiers seemed powerless to stop it.

The main target was property owned by the wealthier ethnic Chinese minority. Unknown to us then, organised gangs had also been raping ethnic Chinese women. It was one of Jakarta's darkest hours.

Nonetheless it gave new courage to the opposition. Students in their thousands marched on the parliament and occupied it. Once a symbol of institutional submissiveness, it became the stage for a spectacular display of popular resistance and a magnet for political dissidents.

Short-lived victory

The boldest, Muslim leader Amien Rais, threatened to bring a million people out in front of the presidential palace. That forced the military to act - sealing off the centre of Jakarta.

Initially it seemed as though they were backing the president, but a late night visit by the top commander, General Wiranto, finally persuaded President Suharto to step down. He handed power to his loyal protegee BJ Habibie.

The students were jubilant, but their victory proved short-lived. Within days they were forcibly evicted from parliament and the fire seemed to die out of Indonesia's embryonic pro-democracy movement.

New beginning

[ image: Habibie: Reputation as an eccentric]
Habibie: Reputation as an eccentric
The new president cuts a very different figure to his predecessor. He promised a new beginning, and the early signs were encouraging. Political prisoners were released and troops were pulled out of troubled territories like East Timor.

But Mr Habibie has failed to address an economic crisis which has reduced tens of millions to abject poverty. And he has failed to convince people that he's serious about introducing a truly clean and democratic political system.

The biggest failure of the new government in the eyes of its critics is its refusal to charge former President Suharto with corruption.

He insists he is innocent - but most believe he has stashed away billions of dollars. It was this issue that which brought the students back out on to the streets.

Just six months after the May riots, Jakarta seemed to be witnessing a repeat performance.

Renewed violence

[ image: Soldiers lash out at protesters]
Soldiers lash out at protesters
During a special assembly meeting, which was meant to approve new political reforms, troops opened fire on thousands of anti-government protestors.

Fourteen people died, and the mood amongst the students turned to bitter disillusionment.

Within a week several Christians were hacked to death in the centre of Jakarta by a crowd of angry Muslims after a neighbourhood brawl. Many Indonesians now fear increasing outbreaks of ethnic and religious conflict in the run-up to what is supposed to the country's first free and fair election next June.

[ image: Indonesia 1998: A state of fear]
Indonesia 1998: A state of fear
Seven months after the Suharto era came crashing to an end, Indonesia is far from at ease.

1998 has been a tumultuous year - one most Indonesian's will be glad to put behind them.

Political commentator, Wimar Witoelar is not alone in feeling that he has lived through a historic period, from which hard lessons have had to be learned.

"We are in the middle of a growing-up process," he says. "Most of all, what we know is that the road to a clean government, to a democratic society, is certainly not as easy as shaking off President Suharto."

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