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Indonesian Leader Faces Criticism

January 14, 1998

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ Sitting cross-legged in the foyer of the Parliament building, a student strummed a guitar as others sang a protest song. One wore a T-shirt with the image of Che Guevara.

In the aura of a laid-back 1960s music festival, the two dozen student protesters had a message Wednesday that was sharply in focus: President Suharto must go.

With the economy wallowing in crisis, many Indonesians are shedding their reluctance to criticize the man who routinely has curbed political dissent during 32 years in power. They say they want a new president in March elections.

It’s dangerous talk: By law, it is a crime to insult Suharto, and people have been jailed for doing so.

There is a growing sense, however, that 76-year-old Suharto is vulnerable at last. For the first time, demands for his ouster are coming from establishment figures, including respected economists and former army lieutenants.

``Thirty years is too long. President Suharto has contributed a lot to this country but it’s enough,″ said Sri Sukapti, an office worker who joined the student protest.

Sukapti, who says rising paper costs are hurting the publishing company where she works, is among millions of Indonesians facing economic uncertainty. Food prices and unemployment are soaring and the nation’s currency, the rupiah, is weak.

Many assert that Suharto’s family and close associates have plundered the economy for personal gain, but protests remain isolated. The military has warned against trouble-making.

If he wants it, Suharto likely would win a seventh, five-year term in March. A special 1,000-member assembly dominated by his supporters chooses the president; there is no popular vote.

The ruling Golkar party has again nominated Suharto, a former army general who brought the country steady economic growth for decades. It says Indonesians still regard him, in the tradition of Java island’s ancient rulers, as a firm but benevolent father figure who will guide them into the next century.

``We must acknowledge the masses’ will,″ party chairman Harmoko was quoted as saying in Wednesday’s Jakarta Post.

Suharto has shown renewed vigor this week, assuring foreign governments and the International Monetary Fund he is committed to reforms tied to a $40 billion rescue package.

Analysts say, however, that even some of Suharto’s advisers want a fresh leader to revive the world’s fourth most-populous nation away from its economic woes.

``The impression I have is that the top leadership is loyal to Suharto, but at the same time would like him to step down,″ said Harold Crouch, an Indonesia expert at the Australian National University in Canberra. ``They want him to go with dignity.″

He says even the feeling in the loyal military is: ``We don’t want to inherit a sinking ship.″

The military, which is heavily represented in the government, is believed to be building support for possible vice-presidential candidates who would take over from Suharto.

They include Try Sutrisno, the current vice-president, and Hartono, the minister of information. Both are retired army generals.

Opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri has offered herself as a possible candidate. The weekly news magazine D&R featured her on its front cover, but analysts agree her chances are slim.

The government has yet to react forcefully to the more strident calls for Suharto’s ouster. In the past, it has thrown opponents in jail, broken up demonstrations, and banned plays and magazines.

A prominent dissident and former legislator, Sri Bintang Pamungkas, is serving a 34-month prison term for calling Suharto a dictator during a speech in Germany.

At the Parliament protest Wednesday, long-haired students spread their banners on the floor, lingered for an hour and then politely filed away. Security was light.

``We’re not afraid anymore,″ said Ray Sinaga, a 24-year-old electrical engineering student.

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