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Meltdown in Indonesia? Suharto Showing Panic

Leader rushes home to find his legitimacy eroded by Tuesday's killing of six students.

Sometimes, a display of calm authority amid calamity can be, well, calamitous.

Only last week, President Suharto left Indonesia for his first trip abroad in six months, eager to show to the world that he was in full control of the country and could afford to leave and trust the military with maintaining order.

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Foreign media, he said, had exaggerated the scattered student protests and last week's rioting in Medan. The capital, Jakarta, had been spared serious violence. His ministers tried to assure foreign investors that the worst had passed and people would adjust to the sudden and dramatic price hikes last week that had sparked the violence.

But Mr. Suharto was rushing back to the capital from a week-long conference in Egypt - two days earlier than planned.

He is expected to arrive today and see firsthand how Jakarta has been rocked by violent riots and many of his people wishing he had stayed away.

The police killing of six students at Jakarta's prestigious Trisakti University on Tuesday has shocked this nation of 200 million people.

Mood on the streets

Is this authoritarian ruler losing his legitimacy after 32 years in power?

While the mob that raged through two major streets of Jakarta yesterday targeted their anger at shopping malls rather than government buildings, their cheers left little doubt about their feelings - "Tell the world Suharto should go!" - they shouted at passing reporters.

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"We are hungry, sir," one man said almost apologetically as he nodded at a burning motorcycle repair shop.

"We just can't take it anymore."

Suharto's soldiers dealt with worse riots in 1996, and have managed to protect shopping malls and clear most major thoroughfares without major bloodshed, in sharp contrast to the unprovoked killing of the unarmed students a day earlier.

They stayed loyal to him, too, at times openly sympathetic with the students but unforgiving toward the poor who had emerged from the nearby slums to riot.

But it is far from clear how much blood the soldiers are willing to shed to keep the former general in power. And the popular outcry over Tuesday's killings raises the question whether any amount of blood could scare his people back into submission.

"It will be like a boomerang," said Aji, an unemployed leather cutter in the city of Yogyakarta, as he prepared to join one of at least four student protests in that city alone. "The more violent the Army gets, the more violence they will get back from the people."

Elite shift their support

And if the Army is still behind Suharto, a growing number of the ruling elite is abandoning ship.

Former ministers and allies of the president are calling for his removal. The media, tightly controlled until only a few months ago, rushed to call the killed students "heroes of reforms" and even the television stations, all owned by the state, Suharto children, or his business associates, gave unprecedented coverage.

"The Army has a choice," said Amien Rais, the country's most prominent opposition leader, at a wake for the six students on the Trisakti campus.

"To protect the interests of one small family (Suharto's) or to protect society. Let's raise our spirits and break the power of this disastrous regime."

The riots further damage Suharto's ability to rescue the economy under a $40 billion international package. Foreign investors are shying away, waiting to see if he falls.

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