Fri, 18 Aug 2000

Aug. 17 celebration at palace marred by rally

JAKARTA (JP): President Abdurrahman Wahid led on Thursday a solemn commemoration of Indonesia's 55th anniversary on the grounds of the official residence, Istana Merdeka, as students staged noisy demonstrations in the Monas Square nearby the palace.

Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri assisted the President during the ceremony, including handling of the country's first official flag, made by her mother the late Fatmawati.

Some 5,000 guests, including members of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), former vice presidents, veterans, and foreign envoys, joined the celebration.

The 45-minute ceremony began at 10:00 a.m., four minutes before the founding fathers, Sukarno, and Muhammad Hatta, proclaimed Indonesia's independence in 1945.

The ceremony was opened with a siren and a 17-gun salute. Sounds of bells from the nearby Catholic Cathedral and drum beats from the Istiqlal Great Mosque could be heard clearly at the palace.

Assembly Speaker Amien Rais read the text of the Proclamation and the flag was raised. A minute of silence was then observed to honor the nation's heroes.

It was unfortunate that as Minister of Religious Affairs Tolchah Hasan led a prayer for guidance, a group of students could be heard demonstrating at Monas Square, a short walk from the venue.

When the minister prayed, "Forgive the sins of our leaders", the students were heard shouting, "Bring the corrupt leaders to court".

The President then handed over the duplicate flag to Desiani Victoria, a member of a group of selected senior high school students from across the country to perform the flag raising. The original flag has not been used since 1968.

Then president Soeharto kept the original flag at his residence until his resignation in 1998. The original and duplicate flags are now kept in Sukarno's former bed room at Merdeka Palace.

A senior Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) leader, Ali Maschan Moesa, suggested the President throw away the duplicate flag saying he is convinced the flag has been the source of all the troubles faced by Gus Dur, as the President is popularly called.

Besides Megawati, the ceremony was attended by five other of Sukarno's children, including Guntur Sukarnoputra, Sukarno's wife Hartini, and siblings of the country's first vice president Muhammad Hatta.

Conspicuously absent were former president Soeharto and B.J. Habibie.

According to palace officials, the two former presidents were invited, but had informed the President that they could not come.

"Regarding Soeharto, we thank him for not coming as his presence here could cause a problem," said a palace official.

Guests left the ceremony with a stronger spirit of patriotism and a complimentary bag of souvenirs containing several products of the giant food company PT Indofood.

Foreign diplomats, including British Ambassador Robin Christopher and Singapore's Ambassador Edward Lee, also accepted the gifts.

For many, particularly businessmen, the event was also an opportunity to meet with their favorite ministers.

Two ministers tipped to retain their Cabinet posts, Minister of Law and Legislation Yusril Ihza Mahendra and Minister of Mines and Energy Lt. Gen. (ret.) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, were the most popular of the guests.

Cabinet Secretary Marsilam Simanjuntak laughed when a reporter told him that "The more people ask you to pose with them the stronger your chance to remain in the Cabinet".

Following the ceremony, The President and Vice President jointly hosted a lunch with independence fighters and veterans at the State Palace.

During the ceremony, the President handed over the legal documents for Sukarno's land and building in Bogor, the Batutulis Palace, to Sukarno's eldest son Guntur.

Soeharto's regime seized the property not long after replacing Sukarno in 1967. Soeharto buried Sukarno in Blitar, East Java, despite Sukarno's request to be buried near his home in Bogor.

"Alhamdulillah (Thanks God)," Guntur whispered after receiving the document from the President, while his sister Megawati tried hard to hide her emotions.

In the evening the President presided over the lowering of the flag.

The protesters, a group of a few thousand people claiming to be students from several major universities in Java, such as ITB in Bandung, IPB in Bogor, and ITS in Surabaya, expressed their disappointment with the government's progress implementing the reform agenda.

The students began the demonstration at Hotel Indonesia roundabout in Central Jakarta at about 8:00 a.m. before marching the few kilometers to Merdeka Palace.

During the march, the students were escorted by hundreds of police under the watchful eyes of Jakarta Police chief Insp. Gen. Nurfaizi.

The protesters repeatedly chanted the word "disappointed". The rally ended at about 1:00 p.m. with the students dispersing peacefully. (prb/jaw)