The crisis in Indonesia has riveted people worldwide, but none more so than Indonesian students in Utah who are forced to watch as many of their families and fellow students are caught in the melee.
Billy Boen, president of the International Student Association at Utah State University, is from Jakarta. When he heard about the tumult in his home city, he was shocked."I have a lot of friends who call me, and they are very scared. They say it is like a war down there. Jakarta has crashed."
Talking with his father by phone, Boen learned that people had left Jakarta in panicked droves as thousands of college students stormed Parliament, vowing not to leave until Suharto resigned.
"All are scared, and everyone is threatened," he said.
Pandemonium erupted in Jakarta and other cities when President Suharto issued his resignation during a live television broadcast Wednesday, Indonesia's National Awareness Day. Close Suharto confidante and former Vice President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie was immediately sworn in to serve out the duration of Suharto's term, ending in 2003.
When asked why the situation has grown so bad in Indonesia, Boen said money was the answer. Meaning the people who don't have any have grown resentful of those who do.
Indonesia is steeped in its worst economic debacle in years, riding along the extreme edge of a larger crisis in Southeast Asia. With prices soaring for essential goods and services (fuel prices alone have risen 71 percent since early May), and business closures and unemployment numbers not far behind, the country convulses in grand mal socioeconomic seizures.
Students began to protest, peacefully at first, and were soon joined by civilians spanning the continuum of society. Shouting turned to violence earlier this year as the cost of living exploded and currency imploded. More than 500 people were killed in the past few weeks alone. Mobs looted malls and shops, mostly Chinese-owned and those linked to the first family.
"It is very sad," Boen said. "The students - and other people now - wanted total reformation of politics and the economy. But other people, maybe the poorer people, have used the situation to steal things and create many problems."
"Suharto, I think, is a good president," he said just days before Suharto stepped down. "But I think people don't like him because his family became so rich. They had many things, like their own airline. And, as people became more and more poor, they didn't like that. They wanted reformation because they couldn't buy food or anything, because the exchange rate for the rupiah went so far down."
Ethnic divisiveness also played a critical role in the escalation of violence, said Andik Wijaya, a film studies student at the University of Utah.
A second-generation Chinese-Indonesian, Wijaya worries that the strong anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia puts his family at risk. Violence targeted against the Chinese, like the looting and burning in recent riots, are likely a combination of residual fear about communism and anger over the disproportionate wealth of Chinese businesses countrywide.
His father owns a wood factory and a chicken farm near Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, and Wijaya said his family is well-off. And, though Wijaya was cautious in his support of Suharto, he said his family is less afraid of Suharto than of what would happen if the Muslim party gained power. Muslims have a long history of antagonism against the Chinese, going back to the 1960s Suharto takeover.
Even so, Wijaya agreed that Suharto's government had lost its ability to address the needs of the people. Some things just can't be fixed, only replaced, he said. What's important now is getting Indonesia back on its feet.
"We need to come out of this as quickly as possible," Wijaya said. "I don't think Suharto caused anything. I blame the economic slump. But it's not just Indonesia. It's the whole region."
Both Wijaya and Boen hope to return to Indonesia when they finish school, and they remain hopeful that tensions will subside in their homeland. For now, though, both continue to watch the situation very closely. It is still unknown whether a Habibie government will be an improvement over the Suharto regime, or simply a move to preserve the status quo.
But Wijaya, like many Indonesians, are willing to take the chance.
"Replacing Suharto will definitely be an improvement," Wijaya said. "You cannot get any worse than this."