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Indonesians Struggle With New Laws

May 9, 1998

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ When Turah, a fruit seller, talks about economic crisis, she puts it in terms of apples and oranges.

``I just sit here and watch my oranges go brown,″ said Turah, 27, to whom ``International Monetary Fund″ and ``government subsidy″ are buzzwords that mean little.

Turah said last month her fruit distributor increased the prices of the apples, oranges and watermelons that fill her small shop by more than 100 percent, part of a climate of steadily rising prices. Her business has since fallen by more than half.

This week, her husband’s two-hour drive to reach the distributor’s warehouse in Sukabumi, south of Jakarta, became 70 percent more expensive after the government cut off fuel subsidies to meet IMF-demanded economic reforms.

Life is getting more difficult, Turah said, but people still need to eat.

``You’d think nobody wants to buy this,″ she said, holding up a rotted mandarin orange marked down 50 percent. But given tight money all around, ``More people buy spoiled fruit now than fresh fruit.″

Indonesia has long subsidized food, fuel and other necessities for its 200 million people. That changed Tuesday when the government cut subsidies in fuel, electricity and transportation to ease its growing deficit.

The cuts won Indonesia several billion dollars of support from the IMF. But they triggered violent riots in and around the northern Sumatra city of Medan and fueled student protests nationwide.

``The students are the voice of the people,″ said Laksomo, a 27-year-old travel agent, as he exited from Friday prayers at a mosque in an affluent Jakarta neighborhood.

Concerns of growing social unrest have sent Indonesia’s currency, which has depreciated 70 percent since last year, into another tailspin. Around Jakarta, dozens of people agreed that fears of upheaval were not far from becoming a reality.

Bus and taxi drivers joined hundreds of protesting students in Jakarta on Friday, demanding that fuel subsidies be restored. The drivers are required to pay for their own gasoline.

Parents, apprehensive about what the future holds for their children, said the next generation already has been affected.

The words monetary crisis, or ``kris mon,″ have become so common in everyday talk that newborns are leaving hospitals with names like Christa Moni, for girls, and Chris Monika, for boys.

Students at one Jakarta university staged a mock trial of President Suharto, whom they blamed for the crisis. Protesters burned pictures of Suharto, who has ruled for 30 years, and sentenced him to execution.

``It can only get worse,″ Laksomo predicted.

His words were echoed by Judy Suparman, a banker.

``The students are the only ones with their heads on straight,″ said Suparman, 32, who was told recently her annual raise had been suspended until further notice.

Suparman’s 24 million-rupiah salary was the equivalent of $9,600 before the crisis hit last year. Now, it’s equal to $2,600.

``I feel the effects every single day,″ she said. ``The government has to find a way to solve our problems. Don’t tell me about politics and budget deficits. I’m a mother. Tell me how I can buy milk for my baby.″

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