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Resentment against Megawati flares

Price increases and corruption charges tarnish the image of Indonesia's once-popular president.

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Since the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri instituted price increases at the beginning of the year, ragtag student groups have been protesting.

Last week, in the Central Java city of Yogyakarta, shots were fired during a rally of about 250 students, and two protesters were jailed for burning a photograph of President Megawati. In the capital, Jakarta, about 500 students set tires on fire outside of Megawati's lavish home and called for her to step down for "betraying the poor."

The protests - modest by Indonesian standards - proved effective. Some subsidies on fuel and electricity were restored last week, and the usually taciturn Megawati responded with a rare speech laced with attacks on her political enemies and complaints about press bias.

Observers say it's a clear warning that the campaign for president has unofficially opened, 17 months before the next election, and that the challenge to Megawati's rule will be intense. For Megawati herself, the protests were evidence that the saintly aura she brought to office has been tattered by economic malaise and a growing public perception that she won't fight corruption.

"She is accustomed to having attacks come from the political elite, not from the grass roots, where she is convinced she is widely adored,'' says Jeffrey Winters, an Indonesia expert at Northwestern University in Chicago. "That bubble of adoration ... has burst now, and she has to entertain for the first time the idea that she might not win so handily in 2004."


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