Suriname's rulers face rebel push and unrest over economy

Suriname's military regime is under pressure from a resurgent guerrilla movement and a newly vocal population feeling the effects of a deteriorating economy. The capital is tense. Recent weeks have brought the first public protests against the government in four years. Rebel troops are harassing Army patrols on the outskirts of the city. Suriname's leader, Lt. Col. Desi Bouterse, had to travel to a western border town Wednesday to celebrate the coup that put him in power seven years ago.

Colonel Bouterse adopted a grim tone in his anniversary speech, talking of the foreign-exchange crisis that sent housewives into the streets Feb. 17 to demand scarce goods like cooking oil and bread. Students followed the housewives with three days of unprecedented protests against Bouterse himself. The government closed the high schools in the capital last week, but they will reopen today.

``The demonstrations were very significant,'' said one Western diplomat in a telephone interview from the capital. ``It was the first time there were overt rumblings in the city.''

Some 800 ill-equipped commandos have been staging hit-and-run jungle attacks on Bouterse's 2,000-man Army since July. The guerrillas, led by former Bouterse bodyguard Ronny Brunswijk, say they want to oust the military leaders and hold elections.

Traditional party leaders have kept their distance from Mr. Brunswijk, choosing to cooperate with Bouterse in drawing up a new constitution that he has promised will pave the way to free elections.

Under the government's timetable, the constitution will be finished by March 31 and a referendum held in six months. Elections would take place the following March.

Observers credit Bouterse with blocking a linkup between between the jungle commandos and the politicians, but it will take more than political skills to prevent an economic collapse that could bring down the regime.

Rice and banana exports are still moving, but guerrilla attacks have shut down exports from the nation's principal source of foreign exchange, the bauxite and aluminum industry.

Foreign exchange earnings have dropped dramatically, and housewives are coming up empty-handed. Shortages of bread have arisen because the mills have been closed ever since the guerrillas blew up two electric towers on Jan. 25.

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