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When in Indonesia ...

At APEC summit presidents must wear batik, and reporters zoom down empty Jakarta streets

THIS was the scene a few days ago in front of the US Embassy in Jakarta:

Inside the gate: Twenty-nine East Timorese students, bedraggled and grubby. Hours earlier they had scaled the iron fence and begun a sit-in to protest the 20-year-old Indonesian annexation of their homeland. You could tell that a lot of tension and plotting had preceded their quick climb over the spikes, and they looked tired and worried.

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Outside: Several dozen reporters and photographers, alert and happy to be several miles from the Jakarta Convention Center, where the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum was in progress.

At the convention hall, the main foyer is a vast, marble-floored space where dignitaries performed the ``no comment'' ballet as each meeting adjourned. Tightly packed clusters of people, microphones and cameras held aloft, moved in a shuffling glide across the room. At their center are the brightly illuminated heads of senior officials, simultaneously grave and coy.

Multilateral diplomacy is a game of nuance, in which little is said and even less is done. The Timorese students, by contrast, had risked something. For the journalists at APEC, the choice was easy.

The neutron highway

Of course, dignitary journalism has its rewards. The Indonesian government declared Monday and Tuesday national holidays to minimize traffic. The police then barred all nonofficial vehicles from the express lanes of Jakarta's broad avenues to keep them clear for motorcades. The effect suggested what the aftermath of a neutron bomb would be like - empty streets with hardly any people.

But it was possible to hire one of the city's luxury cabs, shiny black Toyotas with tinted windows, and gain access to the empty express lanes by glaring at the traffic cops and showing an APEC identification badge.

The drivers seemed to find this the opportunity of a lifetime, hitting 88 m.p.h. through the business district at midday while the police looked on approvingly. The countless signs reading, ``Welcome APEC Delegates,'' went by in a blur.

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Something in a shirt

By now the world knows that President Suharto, Indonesia's leader and the host of the APEC summit, had batik shirts designed for his counterparts. The sartorial uniformity offered one contrast to last year's summit in Seattle, where Japan's then-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa grabbed all the fashion limelight by wearing a white scarf rakishly draped over his shoulder.

Local observers, however, saw something else in the batik shirts: It made the summit look like an Indonesian Cabinet meeting. There is no question about where the power lies in the Indonesian government, so the pictures of 18 world leaders in batik conferred more authority on Mr. Suharto than just his role as APEC's chairman.

Sublime benevolence

One couldn't help but detect an ominous note in Suharto's press conference after the summit. Twice he expressed the hope that the journalists asking him questions would ``live long enough'' to experience the fruits of the free trade and investment the APEC leaders promised to bring about by the year 2020.

Mr. Suharto's government doesn't take kindly to unfavorable press coverage. Foreign journalists find it notoriously difficult to gain permission to reenter the country if the government decides their work portrays the country or its leaders in an unflattering light.

But time is relative for Indonesian officials. Suharto and Foreign Minister Ali Alatas ducked questions about East Timor by saying an adequate answer would take too long.

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