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Suharto's Choice

The tremors are growing stronger beneath Indonesia's three-decade-old Suharto regime. Economically, the troubles continue, though bail-out money from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) resumed flowing at a restrained pace this week. The rumblings most unsettling to President Suharto, however, are increasingly political.

Indonesia's university students have launched a protest movement to force reform on the autocratic head of state. Quoting the preamble to Indonesia's Constitution and singing revolutionary songs, the protesters cast themselves as the conscience of the nation. And while the students may not yet represent a popular groundswell in a country of 210 million citizens, their influence is enhanced by the liberal use of electronic networking and by the historic role of student protest in past transformations of the country.

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The reforms they want are fundamental: genuinely representative government and competitive elections. Laws implemented by Suharto in the mid 1980s removed any semblance of free political institutions. The country's legislative body is, now, essentially a creature of the president.

The reforms students seek go far beyond the economic adjustments demanded by the IMF - higher interest rates, the breakup of state-run monopolies, and a stop to profligate lending by the central bank. These and other IMF financial requirements have met with snail-paced compliance. Enough has been done, however, to win US support for releasing another $1 billion of the IMF stabilization program. But financial reforms and IMF aid will do little in the short run to restore Indonesian prosperity. Meanwhile, the removal of government subsidies for fuel and transportation is making life harder for average Indonesians, deepening political discontent. Suharto won't be able to buy his way out of this crisis.

Neither does a violent crackdown on demonstrators offer a way out. The risk of large-scale injury and loss of life would be great, with the probability of even more widespread unrest. The military, always a key factor in Indonesia, is acutely aware of this risk.

Suharto's remaining, and only good, option is to move toward the reforms demanded by the students. This would entail repeal of the laws that stifle democratic expression. Then the door might open to a transition marked by neither blood nor economic ruin. The US and other nations interested in seeing enduring stability in the world's fourth largest country should be using their leverage to help Suharto make the right choice.

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