The Largest Anti-Suharto Protest Ever

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After years of watching his students protest government policy, Professor Tumirin decided it was finally time to join them.

Wednesday the engineer took a black marker to his white fishing hat and emblazoned it with the word "reform." Heading to Gadjah Mada University, he joined some 50,000 cheering students and fellow faculty to demand that President Suharto step down.

"I think more than 30 years for this president is enough," explains Mr. Tumirin.

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On a day when a massive deployment of troops silenced the capital of Jakarta, the protests here in this central Javanese city offered a striking counterpoint.

In what is clearly the largest anti-Suharto demonstration to take place in Indonesia to date, estimates by foreign diplomats and local media put the total citywide protests in Yogyakarta at between 250,000 to 500,000.

The significance of the Yogyakarta rallies is heightened by their location: Suharto was born nearby and this region is the most politically important in the country. The participation of the region's king, Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, is especially noteworthy.

"We have a tradition of struggle," the sultan told cheering crowds at Gadjah Mada. "Reform is not just rhetoric. We need better lives."

While the sultan is not a politician, he is a moral and cultural leader in a country where such positions are highly respected. Suharto himself has drawn from the tradition to further his interests.

Between the sultan's call for reform and the jokes being told at Suharto's expense - the president's idea of family planning is to make sure all six of his kids get rich through state-granted monopolies - it was a damaging day for Suharto.

Students from five city universities marched to converge on the grounds of the sultan's palace in the heart of the city. There, whole families joined them.

Venturing off campuses and marching through the city was risky for the demonstrators, as it is illegal and has prompted crackdowns here in the past.

But state police simply watched as a 150-yard-long phalanx of demonstrators poured off the Gadjah Mada campus and moved slowly through the dusty streets.

Motorbike riders held flags and sang a slightly twisted soccer chant above the whine of their engines: "Ole ole ole ole, Suhartoooo has to goooo!" Vendors hawked soft drinks as grandmothers, men in ties, and barefoot schoolchildren lined the sidewalks in 90-degree heat, giving the thumbs-up sign and applauding.

One young mother explained that the students might be from elite universities, but their demands strike a chord. "This is for poor people like us," she says, as she cradled her baby boy in a purple batik sling.

This May 20 holiday - commemorating the independence movement against Dutch colonialists - is usually celebrated by staying home and sleeping. But this year speech givers took advantage of the historical resonance. Among those in the crowd, there was little patience for Suharto's offer to leave office within the year. "It's just a delaying tactic," says Koesnadi Hardjasoemantri, former rector of the university. "We're not that stupid."

A casket decorated with Suharto's picture and purple ribbons reflects a theatrical flair to the protests, but careful organization was also apparent. Speeches began on time and care was taken to ensure calm. There were concerns that provocateurs would try to discredit the students by inciting violence, says Dr. Koesnadi, who negotiated for the armed forces to cooperate with student-led and volunteer security groups during the rallies.

While the march remains calm, there are moments of tension. A siren's wail makes marchers turn uneasily.

"Sometimes I feel fear in these situations," says Adib, an economics student. "But this is the time to seize the moment. If they let us go peacefully and we can walk like this, we can show them how much we want change."

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