Indonesia grapples with protests

The Army killings of several student demonstrators earlier this month in Indonesia sparked another student protest yesterday. Both protests, speculate Indonesian officials, may be due to rising political tensions four months before important changes in government. Those changes, which will be made in March by the 1000-member People's Consultative Assembly, include the almost certain reelection of President Suharto to another five-year term, the choice of a new vice-president who could possibly be Mr. Suharto's chosen heir-apparent, and approval of new government guidelines.

The first protest, however, hardly appeared to be political. On Oct. 31, hundreds of students in the city of Ujung Pandang demonstrated against police enforcement of a law requiring motorcyclists to wear safety helmets. But to local officials, the crowd appeared to be unusually well organized, raising concern that hidden political forces were at work.

The Army, with machine guns and tanks, was called into the city after students began to forcibly remove helmets from passing motorcyclists. On Nov. 2 and 3, the protest mounted and resulted in an undetermined number of student deaths. Many local observers put the tally between 9 and 15.

Confusion over the body count is the least of the worries for South Sulawesi's governor, Mr. Amiruddin (many Indonesian names are one word). In an interview, the governor said an investigation has yet to turn up clues on what lies behind the sudden flare-up.

But, he says, ``more or less, Jakarta was expecting something like this to happen.'' Since 1985, when world petroleum prices declined, oil-producing Indonesia has seen its economy suffer. Youth unemployment, says Amiruddin, is ``quite big.''

And in the last decade, many dissidents in Indonesia have been driven underground, he says, in the government's perceived need to maintain unity in a nation so ethnically diverse. So when protests do arise these days, detecting the deep causes may be difficult. One Dutch economist in Indonesia said people have so few legal channels for open opposition to government policy that they are forced to choose nonpolitical issues, such as the helmet law, if they want to speak out.

During the protest, student leaders asked the governor for an end to police corruption and the government lottery. Targeting the lottery indicates possible support of the students by orthodox Muslim leaders, who have also sought to rid largely Muslim Indonesia of all gambling.

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