High-Tech Battle Lines In Indonesia

Indonesia's riot police have rubber bullets in their guns, tear gas canisters on their belts, rattan sticks in their hands, and Rottweilers on leashes.

The student protesters they face almost daily hold toy guns and white flowers. At times, they also hold rocks and Molotov cocktails.

But the students have other weapons that may prove more effective: cellular phones, pagers, personal computers, and Web sites.

As Indonesia's economy deteriorates, thousands of students are using high-tech gadgets to organize dissent and send a message to President Suharto, their ruler for 32 years: "Down with prices, down with Suharto."

While still small in number, Indonesia's student protesters are receiving wide publicity and have already met with government ministers and the new vice president, B.J. Habibie.

They are able to make such an impact because most other forms of opposition, such as political parties and labor unions, have been suppressed or put under state control. More important, Suharto remembers the students of 1966 who whipped up public opinion against his predecessor, Sukarno, until he was forced to step down.

But what has become the most vital element to the student movement is the beeps and rings of gadgets.

"High-tech is very important for coordinating our demonstrations," says Hakim Hatta, chairman of Pijar, a student movement that started as a non-governmental organization dedicated to building information networks. "We do not organize demonstrations but we try to build networks between students," he adds. "Everybody must know what is happening in this country."

The slender law student, with thin whiskers that have yet to turn into a moustache, has a pager bulging in his pocket. Last year Pijar started one of Indonesia's most lively and controversial Web sites, offering a mix of news, opinions, and rumors.

During a wave of protests in recent weeks, journalists received almost daily e-mail reports and faxes from students across the country, detailing the number of protesters and, sometimes, the number of wounded when police cracked down. One former Indonesian minister passed along e-mail versions of foreign news reports that have been gathered by an Indonesian studying in Australia.

These new technologies help students reach out to each other across an archipelago of 13,000 islands with the push of a button or the click of a mouse. They also help explain why the demonstrations have been held even on the most distant islands, while in 1966 they were limited to the capital, Jakarta, and one nearby city. In a country where television and print media are still censored, although less so than before, Web sites and Internet discussion groups tend to be the only independent sources of information.

E-mail, pagers, and cellular phones also help students evade police scrutiny, as many phones are bugged. When Mr. Hatta gets a request for information on his pager, he walks to a public pay phone and passes on what he knows, often in code. He has a hand-held computer that holds the phone numbers of his friends, many with code names.

Hatta has good cause to be cautious. Nine Pijar members have been jailed for as many as eight years. Three who organized a protest in March had their first day in court yesterday on charges of subversion, a charge often used because it is vague enough to encompass almost anything and carries heavy prison terms.

One Pijar member was kidnapped in 1996, in a case similar to a spate of recent abductions that activists have blamed on the Army.

Hatta says even a pager is not safe. He recounts how one member of a banned party was arrested when the operator of his pager company informed the police. This arsenal of pagers, modems, and cellular phones is the updated version of the faxes used by activists in the Soviet Union during the 1991 coup attempt, the students in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in1989, and the protesters who brought down Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986.

Ironically, however, these new weapons against authoritarian rule are falling victim to the same economic crisis that gave Indonesia's students the platform to rally around: runaway inflation and a collapse of the country's currency, the rupiah.

"We are very broke," Hatta says. "Our Web site is down because we cannot pay our provider. Our friend had a credit card and said he would pay in dollars. That was when the rupiah was 2,400 to the dollar." Now one dollar buys 8,000 rupiah, which means the provider costs three times as much. "Local providers are afraid to take us," Hatta adds.

But upcoming price hikes are expected to add momentum to the student protests. Indonesia announced yesterday that it will lift subsidies on fuel, electricity, and transportation this month. The moves are in compliance with terms for a $43 million bailout by the International Monetary Fund. As a result, gasoline will cost 71 percent more, while bus, train, and ferry fares will increase by as much as 67 percent.

Inflation has already forced hundreds of students to drop out of university and thousands more are expected to do so this summer because they cannot afford tuition fees - let alone a cellular phone. "E-mail is not expensive," Hatta says. "But not everybody has e-mail. Not everybody has access to information on the Internet. So we try to combine e-mail and print."

With paper prices skyrocketing as well, his group plans to print its first bulletin tomorrow with only 100 copies, hoping that students will photocopy them on their campuses. Suddenly, a student group dedicated to using new technologies has gone back 20 years in time.

"What we use most often is the public phone," Hatta says. "It is not expensive, we can find it everywhere. Often it is broken. Our own phones are bugged. But if we don't use it, life gets more difficult. So we try to tell ourselves it is clean. If I keep thinking the phone is not clean, the information does not flow. And information must flow."

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