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Jokes Help Ease Indonesia's Tensions

Indonesia's leader may be regarded as indispensable. He may have broad powers to silence dissent and divide dissidents. But he can't stop Indonesians from telling jokes about him, including those laced with vindictiveness.

The other day the leader of a Muslim youth organization regaled visitors with a slew of anecdotes, most comparing President Suharto to some of history's more notorious rulers: Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Zairian autocrat Mobuto Sese Seko, and the former shah of Iran, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi.

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Here's one of the jokes: Hundreds of Indonesians are standing in line at a food distribution center, waiting to pick up supplies to help them through the economic crisis.

The line is long, the sun hot, the mood grim. Tempers rise as the people complain about their situation. Finally their anger reaches the point that they decide to hire an assassin to do in the president. Off he goes, and the people return to their line.

A little while later the assassin returns. "Well," the people demand, "did you kill him?"

"Forget about it," the man replies, shaking his head. "That line is even longer."

It's possible that the joke-teller would be subject to prosecution if he were named here, since defaming the president is a crime. "It's a minimal form of resistance," says the youth leader about his jokes, which give his Indonesian listeners the thrill of hearing something illicit. "It enables us to turn our suffering into something more encouraging."

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