A Rare Roar Against an Asian Autocrat

As Suharto's grip on Indonesia's economy slips, a woman leader boldly challenges him.

Yet another woman has stood up to challenge an established ruler in Asia.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia's first president, has thrown her trademark caution to the wind and called on President Suharto to end his 32-year rule over a country - the world's fourth most-populous - whose economy is spiraling downward despite a $38 billion international bailout.

"Will we continue to let the nation be directed and guided by a small dynasty of greedy rulers who alone will benefit from the great assets of our country?" she told more than 1,000 ecstatic supporters in her Jakarta garden on Saturday night.

Her challenge comes as several world leaders, including President Clinton, have called on Mr. Suharto not to backtrack further on reforming the economy and not let Indonesia's troubles further shake Asia's financial markets and ricochet worldwide.

Up to now, the former general has not tolerated serious opposition. Many Indonesians will watch closely how Suharto reacts to the unusually bold challenge by the daughter of his predecessor, Sukarno.

Suharto's political longevity has rested much on steady economic growth for Indonesia's 202 million people. But the steep fall in the currency, the rupiah, has left hundreds of companies unable to pay off foreign loans.

Skyrocketing inflation, massive layoffs, and fears of unrest led millions of Indonesians to rush to the stores to stock up on food for fear of shortages. Suddenly, newspapers ignore their censors. Public dissent is rising.

Now, retired generals, Muslim leaders, and student activists are saying publicly what they had never dared say before - that it is time for Suharto to retire.

"We should allow the man to rest and live again as a simple citizen," Megawati said, to the cheers of young supporters dressed in T-shirts bearing her nickname, Mega.

A daughter's story

Megawati carries her father's name, his eyes and heavy eyebrows, but until recently she seemed to have little more to rekindle the huge popularity of Sukarno, who declared independence from Dutch rule in 1945 and could rivet millions of Indonesians with his colorful radio talks.

Megawati had long been dismissed by the political elite as a quiet housewife who preferred puttering about her garden to playing the dirty game of politics. Soft-spoken and somewhat vague at times, she frustrated even her supporters by shying away from direct attacks on the Suharto government.

For the political elite, loyal to Suharto, her name only rekindles memories of the chaos that the flamboyant Sukarno brought to his country's economy and politics. When left-wing military officers attempted a coup in 1965, they triggered a countermove by Suharto and the massacre of more than half-a-million Indonesians who were accused of supporting the Communist Party.

That is also a reason Megawati had been hesitant to excite her supporters too much. In 1996, when Suharto had her ousted from the office of the opposition Democratic Party, which had elected her as chairwoman, he sparked some of the worst riots in decades.

But as more and more people spoke up and the economy neared collapse, Megawati finally bit the bullet. Indonesia became the seventh country in Asia where daughters and wives of former leaders have played a key role, either as rulers or opposition leaders.

Sonia Gandhi, wife of the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, is campaigning on behalf of the Congress Party in India. In Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines as well, daughters and wives of former leaders have attracted millions of supporters mainly because of the charisma of their names. Some have become prime minister or president, while others, like Megawati, have turned into representatives of the lower and middle classes.

On Saturday she surprised her supporters with a fiery speech, her loud voice and determined look.

"The don't-give-a-damn attitude of both the government and the business community toward our ballooning debt puts both the national economy and the people's welfare at mortal risk," she said. "Striped prison uniforms should be sewn for the economic criminals who have destroyed our nation and our economic future!"

US challenged

The US official in charge of the American response to the Asian economic crisis, Deputy Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, was to meet Suharto on Tuesday to further push for rapid economic reform. And Stanley Fisher, deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said yesterday, after meeting with Suharto, that the Indonesian leader was clear in his determination to strengthen and accelerate reforms requested by by the IMF.

Megawati called on the US and other lenders not to prop up Suharto's government with aid. "The mounting foreign debt essentially enabled more corruption and collusion while generating more suffering for the poor masses," she said.

Strong stuff, but even her own economic adviser, Kwik Kian Gie, conceded that Megawati stands little chance to become president unless free elections are held. Suharto has hand-picked an assembly to reelect him in March, and Megawati has not been invited. "But if Suharto is no longer president," he said, "we are convinced that Megawati will be one of the major leaders to be consulted."

Megawati already commands the support of the leaders of Indonesia's two largest Muslim organizations, but many in those movements may prefer a candidate from the establishment instead. Some expect that such a candidate might lobby for her support, in return for adopting her anticorruption agenda.

A growing number of Indonesian business executives, academics, Muslim leaders, and retired generals have come out in support of the current vice president, Try Sutrisno, as an alternative to Suharto.

The former general may not be as popular as Megawati but he could gain the support of the ruling elite, which still calls the shots. While Mr. Try has been kept in the president's shadow and abstained from airing his views, many argue he has more experience and fewer enemies than any rival candidates.

"What we need after Suharto is somebody who can accommodate so many factions," said Bambang Triantoro, a former deputy chief of staff in Indonesia's powerful army.

"Try is very open, he is easy to get along with others. He likes to discuss and is open to other views. We need somebody who can make peace."

But none of these candidates, all protgs of the president, appear ready to make any move before Suharto gives them his blessing. "They have no guts to say something like that," Bambang said. "And if they try to do so, Suharto will not listen to them. He will tell them they are too young to give such advice."

Suharto has given no indication he is tired of his job, although he asked the government party, Golkar, to think twice before nominating him again.

Suharto family view

His daughter has said she would prefer her father to retire and spend more time with his family, but Suharto's half-brother, Probosutedjo, told a local newspaper that Suharto had yet to find a successor he felt was competent to face the current crisis.

"Maybe the question which disturbs him now," he said, "is who will be responsible for the national economy in the future."

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