Supporters of a popular opposition politician rampaged through a central business district here Saturday in one of the largest and most violent anti-government demonstrations ever staged in this capital city. Thousands of protesters burned buses and cars, set banks and government office buildings ablaze, and took control of a key thoroughfare in a brazen display of defiance against Indonesia’s military-led regime.
The protesters, as they smashed windows and set fire to three large banks, torched a seven-story agriculture department building and two military offices. They burned down two foreign car dealerships and left at least three burning buses and several smoldering cars sending pillars of thick black smoke curling over the central city skyline. They shouted “Democracy!” and called the name of their symbolic leader - opposition politician Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno.
There were no confirmed reports of deaths. An opposition official said 87 demonstrators had been hurt, but police offered no casualty figures.
Saturday’s outburst seemed to shake the well-cultivated image of Indonesia as a politically stable nation.
The looming crisis over who will succeed 75-year-old President Suharto was brought into sharp focus by the surge of pent-up frustrations of a mostly young and restless population, a group that has known only one ruler for three decades and feels largely left out of the nation’s newfound wealth and its tightly controlled political system. Suharto, who has run unopposed in six elections, has indicated he wants another five years in power.
The unexpected convulsion of violence - coming less than 48 hours after a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher - erupted after hundreds of police backed by soldiers with armored vehicles launched an early-morning raid on the headquarters of the Indonesian Democratic Party.
The raid was aimed at ejecting about 100 followers of Sukarnoputri who had commandeered the building and turned it into a rallying point for anti-government speakers. Sukarnoputri (“putri” means “daughter of”) was ousted from the party’s leadership after an internal coup orchestrated by the government.
The government wished to prevent her from turning the party - one of the country’s two officially sanctioned opposition parties, which both have always supported Suharto for re-election - into a genuine opposition group and staging an unprecedented challenge to Suharto in presidential elections in 1998.
The morning raid took less than an hour. Reporters were kept about a block away, but police were seen carrying out at least seven injured Sukarnoputri supporters on stretchers. Others were seen being marched shirtless, some bleeding, into waiting police trucks.
After the raid, an estimated 2,000 people converged on the scene, surrounding the police and soldiers in the streets, pelting them with rocks and shouting “Mega! Mega!” - the nickname of the popular opposition leader.
Soldiers at one point led a fierce charge to disperse the crowd, swinging rattan poles and beating students, including young women, as they lay cowering on the ground. One man was pleading for soldiers to stop beating him when a police officer approached the scene and kicked the young man square in his chin, making his head snap.
At one point, soldiers and police picked up stones thrown by the demonstrators, who taunted the security forces by calling them “dogs” and “monkeys,” and began hurling them back.
Students, angered by the heavy-handedness of the military and fueled by rumors some opposition supporters may have died in the raid, then went on a rampage through nearby Salemba Raya Avenue, a large, divided boulevard lined with high-rise banks, hotels, car dealerships and the University of Indonesia.
The protesters made bonfire barricades along Salemba Raya and played a cat-and-mouse game in the side streets with hundreds of police and soldiers who chased them. The demonstrators dispersed after the police charges, only to regroup later to pelt the security forces with rocks.
By nightfall, the street resembled a battle zone, and weary soldiers were still struggling to regain control of one of central Jakarta’s main commercial thoroughfares.
“We want democracy, like in America!” shouted one young man in a red pin-striped shirt. “We don’t like Suharto! We want a new president!”
“Suharto is not the president - he thinks he is the king!” shouted another young man in a green shirt carrying a motorcycle helmet.
It was uncertain Saturday night whether the anti-government protests would continue, and possibly even spread beyond young people and students into the broader population.
Some Indonesian and Western diplomatic analysts here said the movement might quickly fizzle unless it could form links with the business community and the urban middle class. Both groups are known to be frustrated with the government and complain about the rising level of corruption here involving members of the president’s family.
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