Sun, 11 May 2003

Reminiscing on the once unthinkable fall of Soeharto

It would have been unthinkable even a few years ago to imagine the fall of Soeharto, one of Asia's most powerful men, which happened back in May 1998. After all, he had just been reelected.

I had to admit that I was among the many Indonesians at the time who believed that Soeharto might not be defeated. He remained sturdy enough, with money and his strong network of military buddies.

The heated antigovernment protests that hit the streets in several cities across the country would only give him and his soldiers more legal reasons to shoot and kill, we thought. Imagining the fall of Soeharto was too extreme, too soon and unthinkable.

Prior to Soeharto's resignation, many media still had to be extremely careful in choosing the correct words for their publications to avoid being closed down by him. But just like poker, strategy is necessary to win the pot.

It was clear that the media -- from print to broadcast -- were all standing behind the students' movement ever since the first protest hit the streets after his reelection.

With the tension continuing to rise in all major cities, The Jakarta Post set up a small team assigned to cover the hustle and bustle of the street protests. And I was on the team. Our fellow correspondents in other towns were also put on alert.

In Jakarta, we divided the team into shifts and "zones", with reporters embedded with the students, the troops, the mobs and the paramedics. Since the situation was very unpredictable, everyone in the group was to strictly follow the standard procedures for safety and any other instructions sent through their pagers and cellulars by the "chief", who was attached to our office to sort out the latest reports for zoning purposes and warnings.

We even bugged the police and intelligence radios, to snoop in to find out what was really going on and to where all the horrors were heading.

We already smelled trouble when the stubborn government announced fuel and electricity hikes on May 5. In a matter of hours, our forebodings came true.

The North Sumatra capital of Medan turned into a nightmare when angry mobs, including high school students, smashed shop windows and burned vehicles in the streets after a clash with security troops during a rally protesting the government hikes.

Anger quickly spread like wildfire through the nation.

The number of rallies, with more professionals and a variety of groups joining in, continued to escalate during those early days in May, but they hadn't reached the peak yet. The shooting of the four Trisakti University students on May 12 was the trigger that unleashed the full fury of the nation.

Some of our team members were already at the scene since morning, as we'd learned the previous evening that thousands of students from Trisakti University, better known as the university for the rich, would finally join the antigovernment protests by marching from their campus in Grogol to the House of Representatives, approximately a one-hour walk.

But the military and the police, armed with automatic rifles, guns and batons, had been ordered to block the students before they had even left the campus.

After a series of failed heated negotiations and light clashes, the shootings occurred. The young students sprinted back into the university compound under a hail of wildly spraying bullets. Our team members had no other option but to find safety to avoid the bullets. One member was hastily asked to get into a roaring ambulance for safety, as the troops fired their guns every which way.

Shortly after dusk, the entire country was shocked: The troops had killed the young protesters. Our team member managed to get into the emergency room of Sumber Waras hospital after pretending to be one of the victims' relatives, only to confirm the number of the dead.

The next day and the two days following, Jakarta became a nasty and dangerous town for everyone. Security forces seemed powerless and were nowhere to be seen to stop the looting, the torching of buildings and the anti-Chinese violence that spread unchecked through the capital.

For safety reasons, we asked our female team member, who is of Chinese descent, to stay away from the crowds -- she had already been stopped several times by mobs just because of the way she looked.

A day after Soeharto's resignation, we -- in a group -- walked to the House in the evening, as we'd just learned that security forces would soon carry out a peaceful operation to turn the students, who rejected Habibie's appointment to replace Soeharto, out of the complex.

Near the rear gates, we saw groups of soldiers standing on parade. We were then checked by the students at the gates. Only a few steps after we entered the compound, we were startled by gunshots and loud shouts ordering "Tembak! Tembak!" (Shoot! Shoot!).

The lights went out. The students abruptly dispersed, sprinted and screamed. We rushed toward our right and hastily helped each other to climb a 2.5-meter-high wall. Thanks to our fear at the sudden shots and thunderous voices, some of us, even the women, managed to climb the wall on our own. We, of course, couldn't have done it without the threat of those shots and shouts.

Those unforgettable, exhausting days of May 1998 have taught me and the rest of the team so many precious lessons, including how the impossible could become the possible.

Armed to the teeth with inflammatory posters, megaphones and the impassioned rhetoric of Reformasi (Reform), the students teamed up with the "real" people and the media to finally win the battle against a repressive regime.

Ironically, it's true that the truth, justice and democracy they fought for remain an empty slogan today.

Most of our team members are still with the Post. Three of us went overseas to study. A few others have left.

But the spirit and camaraderie we felt as a team during those horrifying days of history will never fade.

-- K. Basrie