Saturday, December 14, 2002



It was time to leave Jakarta. Over breakfast, on the morning of Saturday 16th May, I was thinking about Min. It could be some time before I saw him again. What if Indonesia descended into a long period of civil strife? What if it proved impossible for my school to reopen? What if I could not return? I studied the Jakarta Post: hundreds of bodies had been found in the debris of burnt out buildings; there were front page pictures of armoured cars patrolling in front of the Grand Hyatt hotel and of President Suharto discussing the crisis with officials such as Feisal Tanjung, Co-ordinating Minister of Political and Security Affairs.

I packed my photos, my birth certificate and other such documents, my toothbrush and a change of clothing. I paid the maid, driver and gardener their wages for the month and explained that I was leaving in their hands an envelope filled with sufficient money to cover Mo’s usual visits to various poor people in kampungs and children attending hospitals. Mo insisted that the maid should guard this money and so the envelope was put in a rusty biscuit tin in a drawer in the little room occupied by the maid. I suggested that Mo should only make his journeys when it was safe to do so.

Those of us on the teaching staff who had opted to leave for Malaysia gathered at a place called Country Woods Estate. This housing complex, fifteen minutes drive from my home, has swimming pools, tennis courts, and a vast playing field for cricket and soccer. Our assembly point was just outside the club house.

"Nice to see the armoured car at the entrance to the estate," I said to Carmen, after locating her seated on a small brown suitcase next to her Toyota Kijang.

"That’s because lots of Americans and at least one senior policeman stay here," said Carmen.

"I came via the back roads," I said. "Everything looked normal."

"Not where I live," said Carmen, giggling. "They’d burnt a car showroom and several shops behind our complex. People said hoodlums had been bussed in. Gangsters from other parts of Indonesia."

"The looting had nothing to do with your kampung neighbours?"

Carmen chuckled embarrassingly loudly. "I suspect one or two teenagers joined in. Did a bit of shopping. I heard from Diah, the maid, that a local kid had been forced by his parents and neighbours to hand over a TV to the police."

"Looks like we’ve got at least half the staff here," I said.

"Not everyone’s going," said Carmen, gesturing in the direction of residents of the estate enjoying their Saturday morning recreation. Fair-haired children in bright T-shirts and shorts were kicking a football; ladies with tanned backs and legs were heading for the squash courts; two fat men were out for a cycle ride.

The journey to the airport was in convoy, mainly on deserted toll roads. I saw no smoke, no crowds and only a handful of buildings which appeared damaged.

The international terminal at Soekarno-Hatta was much more crowded than usual but there were no obvious signs of crisis, apart from the large quantities of luggage accompanying some American and Chinese-Indonesian travellers.

I had breakfast in bed on the morning of Sunday, the 17th of May. From my bedroom in Kuala Lumpur’s five-star Renaissance Hotel I looked directly onto the world’s tallest building, the Petronas Twin Towers. The towers looked neither Malaysian nor beautiful. In fact they looked like fat earthworms. Perhaps they were a symbol of one of the things that had gone wrong in this part of the world: too much money had gone into building tower blocks.

I switched on the TV and watched Maria Ressa, CNN’s Jakarta bureau chief, tell the world about the rioting and looting of the previous days. She announced that Suharto had promised to make changes in his cabinet. There was no mention of the American-trained Kopassus special forces. CNN made it sound as if the riots had been spontaneous. Why did Maria Ressa not criticise the Pentagon-trained generals?

Leaving the hushed air-conditioned hotel I stepped out onto streets of cheerful tropical sunshine and noisy dusty traffic. By way of boisterous vegetable markets, decaying art-deco villas, grimy shophouses, and modern banks and offices, I reached the sizeable area of green in Merdeka Square, known as Padang. A gentle game of cricket was in progress in front of the Tudor-style Selangor Club. I looked around at the variety of architecture: cupolas, minarets, Victorian towers and an abundance of ugly concrete-box skyscrapers.

A clean, efficient light-railway, taking me to the suburbs, gave me an above-ground view of the city. KL was much smaller than Jakarta and lacked the latter’s red roofed kampungs surrounded by vegetable patches and fruit trees. KL had large blocks of government ‘low cost’ housing. I saw none of the military barracks that dot Jakarta.

I stopped at a station on the edge of the city, walked through a pleasant leafy estate of medium cost bungalows and reached an old-fashioned and impoverished kampung half hidden among banana trees. What struck me immediately about this kampung was that the inhabitants were all of Indian origin. The houses were built of timber and raised on stilts. The pathways were unpaved and litter strewn. I took some photos of happy looking girls but received some unfriendly stares from tough looking men with tattoos.

I returned to the main road and reached an area of parkland where some boys were playing football. I bought some cola at a stall on the edge of the park and tried to make conversation with the thin, silvery haired, stall owner.

"The Chinese are having problems in Jakarta," I said in Indonesian, which is similar to the Malaysian language. "They say the army’s involved."

The man, a Malay, gave me a sour look and said nothing. Perhaps he had no sympathy for the Chinese, perhaps the mention of race was taboo, or possibly he did not like talking to certain Westerners. He was old enough to remember that in Malaya, the British had fought the Malayan communists with a degree of brutality; there had been collective punishments of villagers, bombardments from the air and the cutting off of the heads of rebels.

Back on the light railway, heading back to the centre, I found myself sitting next to a small elderly Chinese-Malaysian man with alert eyes and blotchy skin.

"You are on vacation?" asked the man in English, while giving me a shy smile.

I nodded and then told him about my brief visit to the Indian kampung. "Is it safe to wander around KL?" I asked.

"There’s very little crime," he replied, "but like in all cities there are gangs."

"What sort?"

"Drugs. Extortion." His face was impassive.

"Who commits the crimes? Chinese? Malays? Indians?"

"The police say most of those arrested are Indians."

"Why Indians?"

"They are marginalised. The rich are the Chinese businessmen and well-connected Malays. The poor are ordinary Malays and Indians in the slums and squatter settlements. The Indians are the most poor. Their Tamil schools are not good and some of the Indian children don’t go to school. They get the worst jobs."

"I’ve seen a lot of the low-cost public housing. It all looks better than in Indonesia."

"But you know the low-cost houses are too expensive for many Malays and Indians."

"There’s been property speculation here, like in Thailand and Indonesia?"

"Too much of the land is controlled by speculators."

"But Malaysia isn’t in the same deep trouble as Indonesia?"

"Dr. Mahathir is clever. He’s stopping the money from flowing out of Malaysia."

"You like your prime minister?"

"Mahathir has made Malaysia more prosperous. He can see there’s an American conspiracy to keep countries like Malaysia weak."

We pulled into a station near the centre of KL. The little Chinese man stood up, gave a little bow and made his exit.

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.

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.

"Some general?"

"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.



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