Indonesia's students ridicule President

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The Independent Online
An Indonesian joke tells of a poor neighbourhood in Jakarta where people are queuing for rice. The queue stretches for miles and, after four hours of standing in line, one man loses his temper. "Enough is enough," he announces. "I'm going to kill Suharto." Four hours later, he returns looking miserable. "Did you kill him?" his friends ask. "I couldn't get near him," the man says sadly. "There were too many people ahead of me in the queue."

President Suharto isn't known for his sense of humour, but in Yogyakarta there are plenty of people who find him ridiculous. As the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) was cheering his swearing-in speech in the capital, Jakarta, about 10,000 students marched in the campus of Gajah Mada, one of the country's most famous universities. At nine o'clock the chants were seemly enough: Reject Suharto, and lower prices. An hour later, marchers were mispronouncing the President's name as the Indonesian equivalent of Arsehole- harto. By noon, they were shouting "hang the President", and burning him in effigy.

Such stunts are a risky business in Indonesia where insulting the President is a crime punishable by imprisonment. In Bandung, in 1990, six students went to jail for shouting down the interior minister.

But the past few months have seen student protests on a new scale. "Students are an objective political power in this country," says the Muslim opposition leader, Amien Rais."What happened in the Philippines and in Iran has given us inspiration to mobilise People Power."

But the demonstrations are tightly controlled. For all their vehemence, the Gajah Mada students, like their counterparts in Jakarta, march only within their campus grounds. When yesterday's marchers crossed a public road, it was carefully sealed off by student stewards. "Keep in line," they shoutedthrough their megaphones. "Watch out for provocateurs."

The fear of violence runs deep in Indonesia - the last time there was a crisis like this, in the mid-Sixties, about half a million people died in anti-Communist purges. It would only take a few trouble-makers to start throwing stones. Student leaders at Jakarta's University of Indonesia (UI) estimate that 500 of their number report to the intelligence services. There are rumours that the army has been buying UI blazers to blend in during protests (you can spot the spooks, they say, by their good shoes).

In the Philippines, opposition to President Ferdinand Marcos drew strength from the Catholic Church. Indonesia's Muslims are more divided, though organisations like Amien Rais's Muhammadiyah are attempting to fill the gap. Nurhadi, 24, a student organiser at Gajah Mada, said: "... we are still building the solidarity between religion and students that they had in the Philippines."

Amien Rais, who expects the protests to escalate in two or three months' time, said: "For the time being, we have to play smart, because if we tell the students to go down into the streets that's a very good reason for the police to lock them up. We have to push bit by bit ... because nobody can guarantee that student demonstrations will always be peaceful and non-violent. That's why we need to reach out to the leaders of armed forces."

However large their numbers or keen their wit, the students of Indonesia are unlikely to achieve much without the help of the men with guns.