Measuring Java's Boiling Point

Discontent with pace of economic and political reform is strongest among Indonesia's students.

Economic turmoil inevitably breeds talk of belt-tightening. But Zul Terry Apsupi, a student activist in this tidy, verdant city on the Indonesian main island of Java, can already fasten his buckle two notches tighter than he could two weeks ago.

Since Feb. 23 Mr. Apsupi has been on a hunger strike to protest the state of his country's economy and political system. His high cheekbones are growing more prominent, his black jeans and T-shirt are hanging a little looser.

He and four other striking students spend their days shielded from the sun by tarpaulins strung up in the parking lot outside Gadjah Mada University's philosophy department. At night they sleep on the floor in the office of a student-run magazine. Twice the police have told them to stop their protest and several times the students have gone into hiding to elude late-night arrest.

These are days of plotting and protest in Yogyakarta, Indonesia's cultural capital and a town known for political activism. But while hunger strikes and other events are signs of a popular revolution in the making, interviews with analysts and activists alike suggest that Indonesia is not yet on the verge of a "people power" uprising.

Barring a sudden galvanizing event, the government of President Suharto seems to have six months or so to correct Indonesia's enduring economic crisis. "The people are miserable, hungry, and angry," says Amien Rais, the leader of a 28-million-member Muslim organization based here.

Mr. Rais argues that Mr. Suharto must take the blame for the country's economic peril. In international markets the Indonesian rupiah only buys a quarter of what it did nine months ago, hurting local companies and forcing up prices. Economic frustration has led to riots and protests in many parts of this island nation, and this weekend new concerns arose over whether Indonesia and the international community can work together to ease the crisis. (See story, left.)

"I think the best logic is to say goodbye to Suharto," Rais says. "Simply because what we are experiencing now are the fruits of his social, political, and economic engineering." Noting that earlier calls for Suharto to arrange a succession of power have led nowhere, Rais says the time has come to think about "nonviolent and peaceful people's power."

Yogyakarta's distance from the capital, Jakarta, seems to make its people less awed by the power of Suharto and his regime. For most of his 32 years in power, Suharto has worked hard to keep Indonesians away from politics, partly to keep the nation focused on development and partly to solidify his own role as the country's sole leader.

Indonesia's economic crisis is causing some people to try to shake off this grip, even as the regime grows more restrictive. A special 25-day ban on large public gatherings and political protests is in effect, a People's Consultative Assembly is expected to give Suharto emergency powers this week, and the government is punishing an editor who depicted the president as the king of spades on a magazine cover.

But even in this atmosphere of rising tension, some of Yogyakarta's more radical young people say the time is not yet right for revolution. Here the word is reformation.

For years students from the private Islamic University of Indonesia have lived off-campus in a tattered wooden and cement house off a narrow lane in Yogyakarta.

The other day a group of law students passed Saturday afternoon in political discussion, sitting cross-legged on the floor and gradually filling up the ashtrays. A guitar and a book of philosophy lay nearby.

The half-dozen or so students said they had all been arrested countless times and were about to prepare a new round of demonstrations this week. They explained that despite calls that "Suharto must go," their goals are more democracy and a more responsive government.

As for people power, says one law student, "We haven't reached that point yet. The people aren't ready." The students point out that the government is strong. For one thing, its agents watch many of their activities. And the opposition is divided into groups and factions, and is for the moment unable to rally behind a single figure.

The economic crisis has caused suffering in Indonesia, but a visit to a village two hours from Yogyakarta suggests that people are not at the breaking point.

A farmer named Suwarno offers hot roasted peanuts and complains that it is increasingly difficult for him to find day labor in the cities. In this poor region of central Java, villagers supplement their harvests by working on urban construction sites or as domestic servants

The lost income has forced him and his family to give up consumer goods. "But we're not starving," he adds.

Anggito Abimanyu, an economics lecturer at Gadjah Mada, says the more influential middle class is also hurting. "No one can say they're not affected by the crisis," he says. But he notes that these people have money in the bank - it may be worth less as prices rise, but it affords Suharto six months or so of breathing room.

"Now people say that Suharto is part of the problem. Later on they may say that Suharto is the problem."

* Yvan Cohen contributed to this story from Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

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