Prof. Rais Courts the Poor, Scares Many Minorities and Eyes the Presidency
The Capital as ‘Ghost Town’
JAKARTA, Indonesia —President Suharto has proposed his own way out of the political crisis gripping Indonesia: Bear with him a little longer, the 76-year-old ruler urged his people yesterday, and he will introduce democratic reforms, hold new elections soon and retire.
“He’s hallucinating,” says Amien Rais, a popular Muslim leader who has called for millions of antigovernment demonstrators to fill the nation’s streets today. “He must resign now. Every day he waits, he’s digging his own grave.”p. After months of student protests and weeks of rioting, the shadowy drama of Indonesian politics has become unusually stark: The “Father of Development,” as Mr. Suharto is called, wants to end his 32 years of autocratic rule as the “Father of Democracy.”p. The children of Indonesia, led by the irascible Mr. Rais, say scram.p. “If Mr. Suharto wants to avoid the possibility of Indonesia burning down,” warns Mr. Rais, a 55-year-old graduate of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, “he’d be wise to step down.” Whether or not huge numbers of Indonesians heed the Muslim leader’s call to demonstrate today—the military has told them not to—Indonesia’s political crisis is worsening. Until this week, the chief of Indonesia’s politically powerful armed forces, Gen. Wiranto, publicly supported the students’ calls for reform, fostering the hope that, if need be, he might ease Mr. Suharto from power. On Monday, however, he quashed an unprecedented parliamentary effort to oust the president. Instead, Gen. Wiranto said the nation still needs Mr. Suharto to implement reforms, which the president said yesterday he would do.p.
Warned by the General
At the same time, Gen. Wiranto sternly warned Mr. Rais and his followers not to spark trouble in the streets—a challenge Mr. Rais has taken up with renewed calls for a “people power” revolt. “People are much stronger than any political group in this country,” Mr. Rais said yesterday, “including the armed forces.”p. This is Amien Rais’s moment, and he is seizing it. By far the boldest and most bellicose critic of the Suharto government—and no friend to the nation’s minority groups—he is the only active opposition figure with substantial ties to the masses of Indonesian poor. As leader of Mohammadiya, Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim group, he has been crisscrossing the archipelago for years, often traveling by car and boat like a country preacher to cut ribbons at new schools and hospitals in the countryside. The spadework is paying off with a huge base of political support.p. “Amien Rais is my father,” says Legan, a 29-year-old teacher in East Java, who first heard Mr. Rais speak as a boy at a Mohammadiya school. “He taught me about Islam and democracy.” Mr. Rais’s Mohammadiya, which claims about 28 million followers, is a social and religious group similar to the Muslim Brotherhood in the Mideast. Founded in 1912, it teaches dogmatic Islam to spiritually eclectic Indonesians, while encouraging them to pursue modern studies and careers as well. Unlike the Brotherhood in Arab countries, Mohammadiya has never espoused making Indonesia a strict Islamic state.p.
Mr. Rais (pronounced RYE-ess) sprang to political prominence last winter when he declared himself a presidential candidate and vowed, if the economy didn’t improve, to lead a popular rebellion against Mr. Suharto. A smash hit at university protests because of his unrestrained attacks on the whole Suharto family, Mr. Rais made the student movement his own.p. On Monday, shortly before Indonesia’s speaker of Parliament shocked Indonesia by asking the president to step down, Mr. Rais was borne aloft on students’ shoulders through the huge crowd of protesters outside Parliament. “Amien for president!” some chanted. “He’s the only one willing to stand up to Suharto,” said Ronnie, who studies economics at Jakarta’s Pervanas University.p. Beloved as he is by students and Mohammadiya followers, Mr. Rais scares many Indonesians. He has a history of unkind remarks about Christians, Jews and ethnic Chinese, and that history makes some people quiver at the thought of him leading a popular uprising.p. And just when Indonesia is crying out for a Mandela-like conciliator, Mr. Rais sends mixed signals about his devotion to nonviolent change. He urges followers not to loot and burn, but when they do, he says they have been driven to despair by the government. He condemns rioting as a form of protest but invokes its specter as a threat to the government.p. "If Mr. Suharto does not respond to my appeal, he will face the wrath of 202 million Indonesians, " Mr. Rais tells followers in Jakarta. At a meeting in the farming town of Babat in East Java, he warns that “the capital will become a ghost town” if the president doesn’t step down. “The rupiah will plunge, and I don’t know how we’ll be able to rebuild.”p. Barreling through Jakarta traffic on Monday for his triumphant appearance at Parliament, Mr. Rais says he isn’t the man he was a decade or more ago. Yes, as a doctoral student in political science at the University of Chicago, in the late 1970s, he was “struck by the fact,” he says, that America’s Anglo-Saxon majority had come under the control of its Jewish minority.p. So upon returning to Indonesia, after writing his dissertation on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, he was determined to ensure his county’s small Christian and Chinese minorities would never do the same to its Muslim majority, he says. That drive, he admits, spawned a series of attacks, spanning many years, on the power of the Christians and Chinese here.p. “But after reaching out to my Chinese and Christian friends, I now realize there are a lot of meeting points,” Mr. Rais says. “We want to have a strong, safe, democratic and secure Indonesia. To do that, we have to work together.”p.
Man in Motion
Mr. Rais doesn’t stop working. He is a man in perpetual motion, with four offices in two cities, no cellular phone and no aides who keep his schedule. He is notoriously late for appointments, when he keeps them at all, and has been known to speak as little as 10 minutes to audiences who waited hours to see him. He seldom shows up for classes anymore at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, where he is a professor of political science. People who want to see him often take their chances at his Yogyakarta home, where his wife, Ibu Kus, runs a restaurant and kindergarten. “I never know where he is, either,” she says.p. As the political crisis has quickened, so, somehow, has his pace. His life has become an America-style political campaign. Last weekend, he spent about 18 hours in a car to address Mohammadiya rallies in East and West Java.p. Arriving Saturday in Babat outside Surabaya, he is squired around in a motorcade and protected by Mohammadiya Youth in battle fatigues, army boots and red berets. About 10,000 young men, and a few young women, gather at a soccer field to hear him speak, fanning themselves in the sweltering heat. The VIPs include local officials of Mr. Suharto’s Golkar political faction; the provincial governor introduces Mr. Rais as his “trusted friend.”p. When he appears, the crowd surges forward toward the stage, as if he were a rock star, not a Muslim political leader. Mr. Rais smiles at the huge turnout and reads out the many colored banners: “Amien For President,” “God Curses Tyrants,” “Amien, Save Us.”p. “I am correcting that one,” he says. “Allah will save you.”p. Speaking in simple Indonesian laced with Arabic sayings from the Koran and jokes about the Suharto family, Mr. Rais launches a populist tirade against the president. “The people who tell you you must suffer now are living in luxury,” he says. He excoriates the government for allegedly ruining Indonesia’s economy and plundering its resources, including the massive gold and copper reserves mined by Freeport-McMoRan Inc. of New Orleans. " Our government says 10% of Freeport’s production belongs to the country," he says. " Does 10% go into the treasury? No."p.
Giddy With Success
Back in Yogyakarta that night, Mr. Rais is giddy with the day’s success. “The little people love me,” he says. “I say what they think.”p. In a later interview, he says he has modified his youthful hostility to capitalism. He now supports foreign investment in Indonesia and accepts the International Monetary Fund’s role here as a “necessary evil.” But indigenous Indonesians, as opposed to ethnic Chinese, must be allotted a fairer share of the economic pie, as they are in Malaysia, he says. “The minority must have full freedom, but the indigenous must have priority” in business opportunities, he adds.p. Mr. Rais is unabashed about his desire to become president, a real possibility only if Mr. Suharto’s promised elections are the freest in Indonesia in 40 years. More likely, the military will decide who leads the country next, as it always has. Though Mr. Rais has close ties to some generals, Gen. Wiranto isn’t believed to be one of them.p. In fact, some Indonesians say Gen. Wiranto’s surprising defense of Mr. Suharto this week may be due to concern that Mr. Rais and his controversial patron, Vice President B.J. Habibie, may have been conspiring to oust Mr. Suharto. Mr. Habibie, according to some of his own supporters, was hoping Monday’s parliamentary maneuvers would bring about a quick Suharto resignation, which would have elevated Mr. Habibie to the presidency. Associates of both men say Messrs. Rais and Habibie maintained contact in recent days through intermediaries.p. “Wiranto thinks a Habibie presidency would be a disaster,” says a close associate of several generals.p. So Mr. Rais is pounding the streets. In one meeting—14 hours late—with Muslim university students, he exhorts them to work closely with other students in the protest movement. “We have to work with the Chinese and Catholics, so people can’t say we’re fundamentalists like the Taliban” in Afghanistan, he says.p. He is trying hard to overcome the image of a parochial leader. At a speech in a Jakarta mosque, he tells another Muslim group of the “deep psychological fear” suffered by Indonesia’s Chinese. Though the same speech, at other points, is interrupted many times by the Islamic battle cry, “Allahu Akbar,” Mr. Rais returns to the tender question of race repeatedly.p. “The Chinese are also out brothers, but with different skin color. We are all born of Adam—even Tutut” Mr. Suharto’s eldest daughter, Social Affairs Minister Siti Hardijanti Rukmana, a frequent butt of Mr. Rais’s jokes. Many people who know Mr. Rais, however, say he is deeply unsettled himself on questions of race. Nurcholish Madjid, another prominent Indonesian Muslim leader, says that when he and Mr. Rais were students together in Chicago, Mr. Rais refused to go to an American’s house for Thanksgiving. “He asked me why I was going to the house of the kafr,” or infidel, Mr. Nurcholish recalls.p. “He doesn’t have a spiritual commitment to tolerance,” says Mr. Nurcholish, who, though a Suharto critic, joined two other Islamic leaders yesterday in supporting Mr. Suharto’s latest offer of reforms. “I’m afraid whatever Amien says now may be tactical.”p. Most of Mr. Rais’s followers don’t really care. Last Thursday, as parts of Jakarta lay burning and looters owned the streets, Mr. Rais was late again for an appointment. Mobs made most streets impassable, especially for the type of Chinese-owned taxicab in which Mr. Rais was riding. But as it pulled up to a row of burning building-supply shops, the fury in the streets suddenly turned to euphoria. He had been recognized.p. “Amien, Amien” the crowd chanted, as looters dashed out of buildings to catch a glimpse of him. With rioters jumping on the roof of his taxi, he got out.p. “Suharto must step down within a week,” he shouted, and was off, the mob parting like water to let his taxi through.p.
—Raphael Pura and Kate Linebaugh contributed to this article.