Sunday, May 24, 1998 Published at 18:10 GMT 19:10 UK
A city goes mad
'That day a society which never shows its feelings did so with a vengeance'
It has been a turbulent time for Indonesians. The riots, looting and violence of the last couple of weeks claimed over five hundred lives, and thousands of shops and cars were burned and destroyed in the capital Jakarta, and in other cities. The BBC's Asia Correspondent, Matt Frei, has been in Jakarta watching events unfold.
As societies disintegrate into anarchy, it is fascinating to watch how five-star hotels, the citadels of polite behaviour, deal with the deterioration of public manners.
The Mandarin in Jakarta, home to most of the journalists covering this crisis, informed its guests the other day about the imminent chaos with a discreet note written on paper embossed with a golden leaf, the company emblem.
Downstairs in the lobby Herr Gossing, a tall man with a clipped moustache and a calm air, oversaw the boarding up of the windows like a Prussian officer maintaining decorum in battle. The piano never stopped playing and the sushi kept coming.
Riots with a vengeance
A massive plume of black smoke rose from behind the Hyatt Hotel owned by one of the President's sons. Thirty-thousand troops were taking up positions in the capital.
The horizon was filled with fires and watching it all was one man, squatting alone in the empty square on the side of the fountain. He was smiling to himself, as if amused by a private joke, and he was completely naked.
I can understand why some of the buildings would have been ransacked - car showrooms belonging to Tommy Suharto, hotels owned by Bambang Suharto, motorway tollbooths franchised by Tutut, the eldest daughter. The billionaire children of the dictator sound like grotesque characters from a J R R Tolkien fable.
But why was the traffic light blinking helplessly on red smashed to pieces by a student of engineering who should have been swotting for his exams? And why did one man take great care to set a pram on fire? And what were those two singed household turtles doing stuck on a poker still wriggling?
We all feel like smashing plates or throwing a brick at the TV set now and again, but when 10 million people do it is truly terrifying.
What happened that day? One theory in this country, awash with conspiracies, is that the troops under General Prabowo, Suharto's son-in-law, had encouraged the mob to go wild so that he could blame the mayhem on his sworn enemy, the Chief of Staff, General Wiranto. Another more obvious theory was that people were driven by poverty and by the economic crisis.
Both are probably true but the reason why usually civilised beings got up that morning, brushed their teeth, had breakfast and then sacked a city, their own city, is that the conditions were right for the beast in all of them to come out.
In a society that suppresses all meaningful opposition or opinion and then takes away people's livelihoods in an unprecedented economic crisis, that beast is ferocious.
A man with no friends
But the biggest problem facing Professor Dr Engineer Habibie MA, MSc, PhD, summa cum laude, a trained aircraft engineer with a fetish for academic titles, is that he has no friends.
He became president by default, because the constitution dictated it. Presidents without friends, votes and soldiers either disappear or they get nasty. We wait and see.
But as Mr Habibie was hastily sworn in, his predecessor and patron, Mr Suharto, stood and watched.
I thought I could see a faint smile on the iguana-like face of President Suharto. You think I was bad, he seemed to be saying: just wait.