Sticker Shock Riles Jakarta Women

Indonesia's woeful economy has elite breaking protest ban.

One is a scientist, the other a philosophy teacher, and the third a former cybercafe manager. They're trim, well-dressed women who carry themselves - and their cell phones and handbags - with grace.

But for Indonesia's President Suharto, these three women are a sign that his 32-year-old regime is in a new kind of trouble: a growing willingness among this nation's elite to say that change must come at the very top.

"It's the responsibility of a scientist to speak when her moral conscience has told her something is wrong," says Karlina Leksono, an astronomer who studied in London and now works in a research organization run by the man set to become Mr. Suharto's next vice president. She's also read the books of Andrei Sakharov and Natan Scharansky, scientists who opposed the former Soviet Union.

Ms. Karlina and her two co-defendants were arrested late last month as they took part in a low-key protest in the capital, Jakarta.

The 20 or so demonstrators were upset about the high prices of milk and baby formula, which have surged since the beginning of Indonesia's economic crisis last year, hurting the poor especially.

At a hearing Wednesday, the women and their lawyer insisted that they had not held a parade without a license - the violation with which Jakarta authorities have charged them. The half-hour demonstration was preceded by a press conference and consisted of hymn-singing, placard-waving, and praying. Nobody paraded anywhere, the women say.

Public protest, especially on political themes, is risky in Indonesia, where the government can choose from several laws against subversion and disruption to silence its critics. Students and democracy activists occasionally court arrest and imprisonment, but the economic crisis is encouraging some intellectuals and members of the privileged classes to raise their voices as well.

Among the elite, says Salim Said, chairman of the Jakarta Arts Council, "there is a growing dissent against the government." Diplomatic analysts agree that some Indonesians, once unwilling to disagree with the government in public, are now coming forward to make their views known.

Despite a ban on public gatherings, the authorities so far seem to be allowing students to demonstrate as long as they remain on the grounds of their institutions. At the main University of Indonesia campus yesterday about 100 students protested against the government and the economic crisis while hundreds of riot police were stationed along a road leading away from the campus gates.

The women held their protest against milk prices on Feb. 23, the first day of a 25-day ban on public gatherings that authorities have imposed during a meeting of the People's Consultative Assembly, a body of elected and appointed officials who are virtually certain to elect Suharto to a seventh five-year term next week.

For vice president, the assembly is expected to elect Minister of Research and Technology B. J. Habibie, who is also Karlina's boss. Karlina says she's never been arrested before. "We felt insulted by what they did to us," she says of the police. "They took us to a vice-control unit," she adds, her voice rising a little. "That's for prostitutes and gamblers."

The three women were kept at the central Jakarta police station, questioned about the protest and its organizers for 10 hours, and left to sleep on chairs in their interrogation room. They were released 23 hours after their arrest.

At their March 4 hearing, the courtroom was like a scene from a Central American political trial in the 1980s: scores of nuns and supporters singing hymns and patriotic songs, protesters outside the courthouse decrying rising prices, and dozens of police and guards milling around.

Prosecutors said nothing, but the women denied they had violated the law, which they attacked as a holdover regulation used by Dutch colonial authorities to suppress Indonesian independence movements. The judge deferred sentencing the women until next Monday.

Wilasih Noviana, the former manager of a cybercafe that has gone bankrupt because of the country's collapsing economy, had been arrested for protesting as a student several years ago. But she was unprepared for a visit she says the police recently paid to the home where she lives with her mother. They didn't search the house closely, but they offered Ms. Wilasih's mother this advice, she says: "Be careful for your daughter."

Karlina, who was the main organizer of the milk-price protest, says the women wanted to stick to their theme and not have their demonstration turn into a blanket political statement. In an interview, she is willing to elaborate. "After so many years of being a very nice girl, it's time to speak out [and say] that this country has been under oppression for more than 20 years."

The first decade or so of Suharto's rule was a freer time, she says. Now, she adds, "It's been too long."

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