With nation's economy in crisis, Indonesians quietly seek reform As Suharto is re-elected, student activists seek end to government corruption

March 11, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- As a mostly hand-picked national assembly applauded and affirmed President Suharto for a seventh five-year term yesterday, thousands of students held protests across the country to demand political reform and an end to government corruption.

The mood of some students in the capital, though, was subdued and a little fearful -- which helps explain why the 76-year-old former general continues to maintain firm control over the world's fourth most populous country in the midst of its worst economic crisis in three decades.

Hundreds of protesters gathered at Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta, carrying signs with messages such as "Indonesia Needs a Clean Democracy" and singing patriotic songs.

But they complied with the government's order not to leave campus. And when asked if the protesters wanted Suharto to step down, one of the organizers panicked at the mention of the president's name.

"We're not asking for a government change," said the man, who waved his hands nervously and declined to identify himself. "We don't want to attack anyone. We want our voices to be heard."

Challenging the government is not easy in Indonesia, a nation of more than 200 million people. Javanese culture emphasizes respect for authority and elders. Suharto has crafted a paternalistic political system where direct criticism is considered, at best, impolite and, at worst, a crime.

Police questioned the editor of the weekly newsmagazine D&R for at least seven hours after last week's issue portrayed Suharto the King of Spades, according to the Jakarta Post. The royal reference was a jab at the president's inevitable re-election by the nation's rubber-stamp People's Consultative Assembly.

Suharto also controls the military; he has deployed more than 25,000 troops this month to guarantee calm in the capital. On Monday, the 1,000-member assembly granted him unspecified "special powers" to crack down on social unrest.

Suharto's inauguration today at 76 -- he is the oldest serving leader in Asia -- comes at a time when the nation's economy is a mess.

Over-lending by foreign and local banks, corruption and cronyism have triggered an economic crisis that has sent the value of the nation's currency, the rupiah, plunging and the price of consumer goods soaring. Food riots erupted across the country last month, and tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs.

Suharto and the International Monetary Fund are at a stalemate over how to resolve the crisis. The IMF is holding up a $3 billion payment on a $43 billion bailout package until it sees more progress on reforms that would drastically alter the way business is done here.

Suharto's family members own many companies that have enjoyed preferential treatment under the current system. On Monday, some of them suggested that the IMF program, which calls for the elimination of lucrative monopolies and cartels, infringes on Indonesia's sovereignty.

"We do need the IMF, yes, but not if we are continually being repressed with this-and-that conditions," Tuesday's edition of the Jakarta Post quoted Suharto's daughter, Siti Hediati Prabowo, as saying. "We are a sovereign nation and we have our dignity."

The nationalistic rhetoric is echoing on the streets of Jakarta as citizens tire of the crisis and look for someone to blame.

"We have to decide for ourselves what is good for our country," said Arsil Moein, a money-changer. "If [the West] wants to help us, help us in our decisions, but don't tell us what to do."

The government announced yesterday that it will send a high-level team to Washington next week for talks with the United States and the IMF.

Many Indonesians say that the government must open up the authoritarian political system to other voices if it wants to solve the economic crisis, but Gadis Arifia's experience illustrates the prevailing trend.

Suharto's election day was Gadis' first full day as a convicted criminal.

On Monday, the 33-year-old mother of two was found guilty in Central Jakarta District Court of "staging a procession without a permit." Gadis was arrested with two other women last month after a small group of mothers staged a protest over the high price of milk.

The women are members of "The Voice of Concerned Mothers." The group has distributed milk, which has quadrupled in price, to low-income mothers at a reduced cost.

The mothers, who gave food and flowers to police during their brief demonstration, were held for nearly a day and questioned for hours, according to another protester, Karlina Leksono, 40.

"We're pretty angry after the conviction," said Gadis, a lecturer in philosophy and women's studies at the University of Indonesia, who, like many Indonesians, goes by her first name. "It turns out there is no mercy, not even for mothers."

Gadis spent yesterday afternoon trying to persuade the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to support the milk project.

She and fellow protesters say they are unbowed and will appeal their conviction on the charge, which carries a fine of 2,250 rupiah (less than 25 cents) or seven days in jail.

Karlina said she thought the government prosecuted them because it fears that dissent among the nation's educated middle class could be destabilizing.

"They just wanted to show that it is the government which has all the power," said Karlina, a mother of two and lecturer in the nTC philosophy of science at the University of Indonesia.

All was quiet yesterday at the university's downtown campus. A banner that read "We Need Dialogue" hung from the Dutch colonial main building, but there were no demonstrations inside.

Andoko Budiwisesa, a student government leader, said there was no point in protesting Suharto's re-election.

"If we do something now, nothing is going to change," said Andoko, a 23-year-old medical student.

"Suharto is going to be president. It's a matter of choosing your battles."

Pub Date: 3/11/98

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