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Indonesian Students, Police Clash During Riot in Jakarta

By Keith B. Richburg

Thousands of student protesters hurled rocks and gasoline bombs outside the nation’s parliament building, and police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, providing a violent backdrop to President B.J. Habibie’s “accountability” speech Thursday evening highlighting what he believes are the key achievements of his fragile, 16-month tenure.

Several students and at least one policeman were reported injured in the clashes, and the pitched battles were continuing even as Habibie arrived at the parliament to begin his address.

In the speech, Habibie took credit for turning around Indonesia’s economy, which had been devastated by the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. He cited a fall in inflation from 75 percent last year to less than zero today, an expected return to positive growth following a 13 percent plunge in 1998, and a currency, the rupiah, that stabilized around 6,500 to the dollar compared to a low of 15,000 to the dollar last year.

“Our economy has entered a period of recovery,” Habibie declared.

The protesters were demanding a complete break from Indonesia’s authoritarian past, including the resignation of the unpopular Habibie, an end to what they called the “militarization” of Indonesian political life, and a genuine probe into the corruption allegations against ex-president Suharto and his family.

Habibie’s handling of the question of Suharto’s wealth has been one of the protesters’ main complaints against the incumbent, who is widely viewed as a holdover of the old regime. On Monday, Habibie’s acting attorney general halted a corruption investigation against Suharto, citing insufficient evidence. Today, the move to bring the Suharto family to justice faced another setback when the dictator’s youngest son was acquitted in a court case.

A three-judge panel found Hutomo “Tommy” Mandala Putra, 37, innocent of two corruption charges involving a land deal between his company, PT Goro Batara Sakti, and the state food agency Bulog.

Mandala Putra smiled but made no comment when the verdict was announced. His defense lawyer, H.M. Dault, said “We are happy. It is a just decision.” But prosecutors indicated they will appeal.

The demonstration at the parliament building was just one of several large protests around the city Thursday, just days before a 700-member people’s assembly is set to elect a new president to lead the country in the “reform” era ushered in by Suharto’s downfall last year.

At a central downtown traffic circle, thousands of supporters of popular opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri held a campaign-style rally with music, dancing, and banners warning that unless the assembly chooses Megawati as president, her supporters would launch “revolution.”

“Megawati is loved by the people,” said Budi Rasman, a 55-year-old businessman sporting a Megawati baseball cap, red T-shirt, and red jacket, her trademark colors.

“If there are political games, and money politics, Habibie has a chance to win. That’s why we have come here today -- we want Megawati to win.”

Asked what would happen if Habibie emerged the victor, he replied; “Revolution!”