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Generals fear `latent danger' of communism threat

Indonesia: The armed forces crack down on dissidents and lay blame for the weekend's unrest on a threat to the New Order
"The action taken by the People's Democratic Party is very clear," said Lt-Gen Syarwan Hamid. "They want to overthrow the existing government and form their own new government. History can be repeated. It happened in 1948 and it happened in 1965. But Indonesians born after that time do not realise the danger of communism, what we call the latent danger."

The spectre of communist insurgency in south-east Asia, an increasingly remote threat over the last few years, is alive and well in the minds of Indonesia's generals. Four days after pro-democracy demonstrators rioted and burned buildings in Jakarta, the Indonesian armed forces (Abri) yesterday blamed the disturbances on revolutionary forces of the "old order who want to overthrow the New Order". Soldiers on the streets have been ordered to shoot troublemakers on sight, and at least three activists have been arrested or called in for questioning, in what appears to be a general crackdown on peaceful dissidents.

To diplomats and non-government observers events had until recently seemed fairly straightforward. An increasing number of Indonesians are tiring of the authoritarian 30-year regime of President Suharto. Their frustrations came into focus last month when Megawati Sukarnoputri, the popular leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), one of just two opposition parties tolerated by the government, was peremptorily ousted in favour of a more compliant candidate. Supporters of Mrs Megawati occupied the PDI headquarters and when they were violently evicted last Saturday morning, popular anger overflowed in riots which left at least four dead, hundreds injured or arrested, and a dozen buildings in central Jakarta vandalised.

Since the weekend, however, the Suharto government, and particularly the powerfulAbri, have attempted to place blame for the unrest everywhere but at their own front door. At first, the official line was that the dispute over Mrs Megawati's leadership was an internal matter for the PDI. When 10,000 people took to the streets over the weekend, this became a difficult line to argue. Yesterday, Abri came up with a new scapegoat - a small and relatively obscure organisation called the People's Democratic Party (PRD).

The PRD was founded this month, and its platform, so far as it has developed one, appears mild. At a rare news conference yesterday, Lt-Gen Hamid, Abri's chief of socio-political affairs, read extracts from a document allegedly published by the PRD. It speaks of social democracy and of establishing several political parties, that "actively involve and lead mass movements to achieve democratic society in Indonesia".

"We want change, and we want protest," said Lt-Gen Hamid. "But these aims do not agree with the values we follow in Indonesia. This organisation is similar to the former communist party, part of the old order which wants to overthrow the New Order."

"It's the classic tactic - conjure up this communist threat, and use it as an excuse for a crackdown," said one diplomat who was present at the press conference. "That document they produced was cooked up by the military: they forge them here, on the premises."

On Tuesday Lt-Gen Hamid appeared on national television presenting a bizarre diagram illustrating links between the PRD, Mrs Megawati's PDI, and foreign organisations including Amnesty International and the Australian Labor Party. It also named several individual activists, and Amnesty later issued a statement expressing "serious concern that all these activists are at risk of arrest or intimidation".

Accusations of communist sympathies are a serious business in Indonesia. After an alleged left-wing coup attempt in 1965, some half a million people died in anti-communist pogroms, and the maximum penalty for "subversion" is death. In the eyes of the military at least, the taint of communism transcends the generations: top of the government's current wanted list is Budiman Sudjiatmiko, the chairman of the PRD; among the complaints against him, Lt-Gen Hamid cited the fact that his father was an active member of the communist party.