1998: Suharto ousted in Indonesia

JAKARTA, May 21, 1998 - President Suharto apologized for his mistakes and resigned today after 32 years in power, handing over his office to his Vice President, B. J. Habibie, in a nationally televised ceremony.

After his brief statement of resignation, he turned the microphone toward Mr. Habibie, who immediately took the oath of office as a judge held the Koran above Mr. Habibie's head.

Mr. Suharto then stepped up, shook Mr. Habibie's hand, smiled and walked down a line of judges, smiling and shaking their hands. He gave a small salute to the onlookers and walked away.

Throughout the brief and painful ceremony this morning, Mr. Suharto never lost the gentle smile with which he had addressed his people for the past three decades. He concluded,

''I'll say thank you very much for your support and I am sorry for my mistakes, and I hope the Indonesian country will live forever.''

As he gave way to the mounting domestic and international pressure to resign, Mr. Suharto, 76, was careful, as always, to couch his action in constitutional terms, and said power would be transferred to the Vice President under legal procedures. He made no mention of any election, as he had proposed earlier this week, and said that Mr. Habibie would serve out the remainder of Mr. Suharto's term, which ends in 2003.


[In Washington late Wednesday, President Clinton welcomed the resignation of President Suharto but said the nation still needed to begin ''a real democratic transition'' that ''enjoys broad public support.'' His statement came just hours after Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright publicly called for Mr. Suharto to step down. Page A8.]

Although Mr. Suharto has suggested that he might act as an elder statesmen, he gave no indication today of his future role. Mr. Habibie, 61, Mr. Suharto's longtime adviser and Minister of Research and Technology, has little independent political base and has depended throughout his career of Mr. Suharto.

Student protesters, who reacted jubilantly to Mr. Suharto's announcement, had been demanding the President's resignation for three months with protests that culminated this week when they occupied Parliament.

They had also indicated that they would not be satisfied by the installation of Mr. Habibie, who has little support within the powerful military and has antagonized economists and foreign investors.

At the ceremony, Mr. Suharto said his decision was ''based on my understanding that reforms must be carried out peacefully and constitutionally for the sake of the unity.''

Then, looking down at his text, he said, ''I read this statement today, Thursday, May 21, 1998, my resigation statement as the President of Indonesia.''

The officials and reporters gathered in the reception room in his official residence appeared to hold their breath as he spoke, and there was not a rustle of reaction.

Mr. Suharto appeared relaxed and smiling, in a grey leisure suit with a gold-colored state employee pin on his shirt, adjusted the microphone to a comfortable level and pulled a pair of glasses from his pocket as an aide handed him his text.

When the address was over, the state-owned television channel returned to a program of pop music.

After Mr. Suharto spoke, the justices filed past Mr. Habibie and shook his hand. The new President, a small man, seemed almost lost in the crowd of officials.

To the apparent puzzlement of onlookers, Mr. Habibie followed Mr Suharto out of the hall without making a statement to the nationwide audience.

The entire procedure took less than 10 minutes.

Defense Minister Wiranto stepped to the microphone and said the military ''supports and welcomes the resignation of President Suharto,'' and pledged his support to Mr. Habibie. He also said that the military would guarantee the safety of Mr. Suharto's family.

A Government spokesman, Alwi Dahlan, followed with a brief statement affirming that Indonesia would keep its international committments, including those to the International Monetary Fund.

The Parliament building remained occupied today by members of a nationwide student movement that galvanized this politically passive country of more than 200 million only two months after Mr. Suharto engineered his ritual re-election to a seventh five-year term. Their protests set off three days of widely destructive rioting in Jakarta last week that caused at least 500 deaths and shocked the nation into a consensus that Mr. Suharto must go.

The tasks facing the new President are daunting. The economy is in free fall, with months of rioting deepening a crisis that has brought inflation, food shortages, bankruptcies and paralysis to the banks. The currency is worth less than 20 percent of its value last summer. Little has been done to carry out a $43 billion rescue package organized in October by the International Monetary Fund.

''The country needs to take some very tough economic steps that even a popular President would have difficulty implementing,'' a Western diplomat said. ''For an unpopular President, this will be almost impossible.''

In 48 years of independence, Indonesia has never known a smooth transition of power. In 1965 Mr. Suharto, then a top general, took control after helping suppress what he said was a Communist coup attempt against Sukarno, the country's founder. An anti-Communist purge followed in which half a million died.

There are ambitious generals in the military today as well, and they will again have the last word in any power struggle. Apart from Mr. Suharto's own circle, there is virtually no center of power.

The opposition movement was remarkable in that it had no leader. Though in the end virtually the entire nation turned against him, Mr. Suharto was so successful in co-opting public figures and in neutralizing the opposition that the democracy movement remained ineffectual.

For a time the most prominent name among the opposition was Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno. But as public discontent grew, she remained passive. A popular Muslim leader, Amien Rais, emerged in recent weeks as a spokesman for the opposition, but public support did not coalesce.

Like the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos in the Philippines, Mr. Suharto was pushed toward giving up his office when he lost the support of one sector of society and politics after another.

It was when his obedient Parliament turned against him this week that it became clear that Mr. Suharto would not last long. Welcoming the students who occupied their building, the legislators shocked the nation this week by calling for him to quit. Rather than ''people power,'' it was this display of rubber-stamp-Parliament power that shook the foundations of his rule.

Initially, the military blocked the parliamentary leaders' move, saying it remained loyal to the President. But the legislators persisted. On Wednesday they announced that they would call a special session of the electoral commission on Monday to reverse its two-month-old presidential vote and impeach Mr. Suharto.

Asked whether he felt sorry for the man who had engaged his loyalty for so many years, one legislator, Muhamad Asad Umar, said, ''I have felt sorry for him for years, but he didn't take the hint.''

Copyright The New York Times