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Suharto, Military Close Ranks

After repelling effort in parliament to oust him on Monday, Suharto plans reform in attempt to curb protests.

The end of a dictatorship does not come easily.

Yesterday Indonesia's student activists took their calls for President Suharto's ouster to the National Assembly - an institution filled with politicians selected or approved by this country's political patriarch.

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At first it seemed a purely symbolic act, perhaps even a futile one. Then the Assembly's Speaker, a longtime Suharto loyalist named Harmoko, suddenly announced he would call for the president's resignation - a betrayal at close quarters that suggested the end was near.

Until, that is, the commander of the armed forces, backed by other generals, told reporters that the Assembly Speaker's view was his own. "This statement to ask the president to withdraw is a personal opinion ... and has no legal power," said Gen. Wiranto, dampening speculation that military leaders were in the process of negotiating Mr. Suharto's departure. Still, the consensus is growing that a political transition is at hand in Indonesia.

"The problem is no longer when but how" Suharto will step down, says political scientist Salim Said, who says the president is working behind the scenes to exact guarantees in exchange for his departure.

Suharto is presumably trying to guarantee his own safety as well as that of his family and close associates, who have become increasingly reviled figures in recent months. Some reports say he also wants to preserve some of the policies he has implemented over the years.

As the students ended their National Assembly protest yesterday, leaving on buses provided by the military, the news broke of Mr. Harmoko's announcement. "The Speaker of the House, along with his deputies, hope for unity amongst the nation and that the president will wisely step down," he said. Like many of his legislative colleagues, Harmoko owes his career to Suharto.

THOUGH the action is remarkable on its face, some Indonesian analysts advised skepticism. That reserve was validated a few hours later. Aside from dismissing Harmoko's comments, Wiranto warned that plans for a nationwide protest on Wednesday were inappropriate and could reignite rioting. He announced the formation of a "Reform Council" and endorsed Suharto's plan to reshuffle his Cabinet.

Suharto himself stayed in his Jakarta residence, meeting Wiranto and others.

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Despite the uncertainty of Indonesia's situation, it seems that a little history gets made each day in Jakarta.

Yesterday morning an Assembly commission chaired by a former general opened hearings on the country's situation. Its first witness was Amien Rais, a Muslim leader who has risen to prominence as a critic of the president.

Mr. Rais lectured the Assembly members on the inadequacies of this country's political system: the absence of basic democratic freedoms, its weak legislature and judiciary, and the centralization of power in the hand of the president.

Then he thanked the politicians for the chance to speak freely and told of his travels across the country gauging political opinion. Everywhere he has been, he said, the conclusion of the people was the same. Raising his hand to point at the portrait of Suharto in the committee room, Rais added: "He has to step down, the sooner the better."

Some local journalists in the room cheered, but the Assembly members sat quietly. The commission chairman, Budi Harsono, acknowledged in an interview that Rais was the first to voice such a statement in the halls of the National Assembly.

Mr. Harsono said his commission would hear the views of others in coming days, part of the political education many in this country are undertaking as the end of the Suharto era approaches.

There is already speculation about his replacement.

Vice President B.J. Habibie is constitutionally next in line, but he is an unpopular figure and a special session of Indonesia's electoral college, the People's Consultative Assembly, may be called to install a new president.

Wiranto and former Vice President Try Sutrisno, a retired general, are considered by some analysts to be likely candidates for the presidency, although it is possible that a civilian could also get the job.

Qadarian, a University of Indonesia postgraduate student who has stopped going to work in a government office to attend protests, suggests Rais for president. Mr. Qadarian said he had come to the Assembly yesterday "because the president will not step down. He is so stubborn."

Anton, an electronics student at Jakarta's Institute for Science and Technology, said he had hopes that the Assembly would one day do more to represent the will of the people.

Clutching a short bamboo pole with an Indonesian flag, he added, "We want this place to be what it was built for."

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