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'People Power' Politics Starts to Bud in Indonesia

A crackdown on prodemocracy forces after last week's spontaneous riots highlights uncertainty of who will follow longtime President Suharto

The cost of maintaining President Suharto's monopoly on power over Indonesia - a country of nearly 200 million people scattered across 17,000 islands - is rising fast with his bid to crush a "people power" movement ahead of a general election early next year.

A week after riots left several buildings in flames, at least three people dead, and more than 100 in prison, President Suharto's opponents see the beginnings of a spontaneous "people power" movement taking root.

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"What's going on now is that dissatisfaction is growing and appearing at the surface. It's vocal protest, but also silent protest," said Ms. Megawati in an interview with the Monitor yesterday. Megawati is a member of parliament and the daughter of former President Sukarno. Sukarno was toppled by Suharto in 1965

"What I have learned from my friends, from common people, from intellectuals, from officials, is that something is wrong," added the housewife-turned-politician at her secluded home on the outskirts of Jakarta. "Indonesia is changing."

The government launched a crackdown on Indonesia's pro-democracy movement last week. It began by arresting Muchtar Pakpahan, leader of the outlawed Indonesian Prosperity Trade Union, on charges of subversion. Next, Megawati was summoned for questioning by police today. Her lawyer says he is challenging that summons on grounds that Suharto will have to revoke her parliamentary immunity in writing before she can be questioned.

Security forces are still hunting leaders of several "illegal" human rights groups who they say tried to organize a new political party, the People's Democratic Party, with supporters of Megawati in July. The Army has blamed them for the July 27 riots and has stationed thousands of combat troops with "shoot-on-sight" orders at key locations in the capital to keep new demonstrations from forming.

While no opposition leader is yet strong enough to lead the pro-democracy movement, there are indications that Megawati is becoming a magnet for a full range of opponents to Suharto, including human rights activists, environmentalists, feminists, and students.

She was chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), which commands a 15 percent minority in Indonesia's House of Representatives, until she was sacked in June. Indonesia's three recognized political parties are controlled by the government.

The movement has been reinforced by the widespread view that for the first time since Suharto came to power in the wake of an abortive coup, which killed hundreds of thousands of suspected Communists and ethnic Chinese in 1965, that last week's riots appeared not to be the work of government-employed thugs.

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Spontaneous reaction

The July 27 riots started when 500 troops, disguised in the red-and-black colors of Megawati's party, stormed its Jakarta headquarters armed with clubs and chased dozens of Megawati supporters into the residential neighborhood of Proklamasi.

The effect of the attack was to drag onlookers into an internal political party feud that they might otherwise have ignored. Jakarta residents point out that the work "amok" is derived from Malay, the national language of Indonesia (known officially as Bahasa Indonesian).

So well-dressed, middle-class teenagers walked out of their homes in Proklamasi - where a monument stands on the spot where Sukarno declared independence from the Netherlands on Aug. 17, 1945 - and set fire to a bank, a Toyota dealership, a music store, and an agriculture ministry building.

A civil servant who identified himself only as John, wearing bandages on his head, stood by and watched as his neighbor's children set fire to a government building where he worked.

"We are not members of the PDI, but we are angry because of what the government has done to Megawati," he said while teenagers tossed looted computer equipment into a huge bonfire.

Many analysts say that Suharto's current difficulties could indicate that he is facing the same credibility crisis that plagued former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos at the end of his reign in 1985.

After the death in April of Suharto's wife, his closest confidante and political adviser for 49 years, and his perceived ill health, Suharto is seen as handling this new opposition clumsily.

Recent rumors of his ill health were enough to push the Jakarta Stock Exchange index down 5 percent in late July, gouging $4 billion out of the market. Bomb hoaxes after the riots were enough to empty several of the business district's new skyscrapers every day last week.

Army generals used stale anticommunist propaganda to vilify Megawati and her supporters last week, serving to reinforce his critics' claims that Suharto is losing his grip.

At the same time, Megawati appears to be getting stronger by default. Sources close to the ousted PDI leader say her strategy focuses on waiting for the septuagenarian Suharto to pass on and watching his regime collapse underfoot. He has failed to nominate a successor, and several Army generals are said to be quietly vying for supremacy in the next presidential election in 1998.

"It's all about [age]. Her strategy is: 'I am younger,' " says one source in her faction of the PDI, which is seen to have support nationwide.

Suharto's next move

The costs of Suharto's crackdown are mounting far beyond political credibility. The financial expense of keeping the city under control at gunpoint will eventually be passed on to the tenants of the office buildings and shopping malls where many of the deployed troops are stationed. "The government did not anticipate this cost," says Mulya Lubis, a corporate lawyer affiliated with a California-based law firm.

No one pretends to know Suharto's next move. Despite his recent miscalculations, his reputation as the greatest living master of Javanese palace intrigue remains largely intact. In the interview Megawati said that she had not decided on an offer from Soerjadi, Suharto's hand-picked successor to her, that she would be allowed to run in the election.

Still, Suharto's crackdown on Indonesia's nascent prodemocracy movement is sure to continue. The only question is whether throwing its leaders in jail will crush it.

One union leader says it won't. "This is really a pure mass movement, without any formal leader," says Toehap Simanungkalit, a senior official of the Indonesian Prosperity Trade Union. "They have to realize that historically 'people power' is never planned."

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