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Indonesian students stage anti-Suharto protests

Students protesting in the streets  

In this story:

April 20, 1998
Web posted at: 6:38 p.m. EDT (2238 GMT)

JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) -- Indonesian students held more anti-government protests Monday despite weekend talks with Cabinet ministers aimed at ending their demonstrations for political and economic reform.

Thousands of students held a protest rally at the Adhi Tama Institute of Technology in the east Java city of Surabaya, witnesses said, and then marched to the nearby Putara Bangas University shouting "Reform or War!"

A prominent Muslim leader was quoted as saying the protests, most of which have demanded that President Suharto step down to accept responsibility for a major economic crisis, were at the point of no return and that government threats of force would not stop them.

The students chanted slogans demanding those responsible for the crisis be brought before the People's Constituent Assembly. "Bring Suharto, bring Suharto," they shouted.

Several other peaceful protests were staged Monday in Jakarta, the nearby cities of Bogor and Bandung, and Banjarmasin, the capital of South Kalimantan province.

"Bring down prices," said one banner.

Students at Jakarta's Institute of Social and Political Science also held a brief protest but dispersed peacefully when police prevented them from moving off campus, witnesses said.

The military allows the protests to take place inside the universities  

In Banjarmasin, about 560 miles (900 kilometers) northeast of Jakarta, hundreds of students staged a similar protest and were joined by a number of university lecturers. Anti-riot police watched but did not intervene.

Wednesday deadline for reforms

Students have staged near-daily rallies against the government of Suharto, who has led the world's fourth most populous nation for more than three decades. The protesters are getting bolder and better organized, their discontent fueled by Indonesia's worst economic crisis since the 1960s.

The rupiah is stuck at about 8,000 to the dollar -- 70 percent below its level when the crisis began in July. The rupiah's dive has caused the cost of many basic commodities to balloon and has led to rioting and looting in nearly 40 towns in two months.

Indonesia agreed earlier this month to drastic economic reforms in return for a $40 billion International Monetary Fund bailout.

The government announced a 117-point reform program in agreement with the IMF earlier and set Wednesday as the deadline to implement several of them, including a bankruptcy law and a commercial court.

People loot an Indonesian city  

Those in the financial markets have warily watched the protests as they await Wednesday's deadline for the government to implement the reforms, and the possibility of another rise in central bank interest rates.

The devastating crisis has led to unprecedented challenges to Suharto's long rule.

Amien Rais, a fierce government critic and head of the 28-million-strong Muhammadiyah Muslim organization, was quoted in the Jakarta Post newspaper as saying the students had reached a point of no return in their agitation.

"The government must face the reality that the country is in a dire condition and reforms are really needed," he said.

"The present government is everyone's fault," said a student leader identified as Imam.

Political dissent rare

Such opposition is rare in a country where political dissent has long been stifled.

"If that opposition, that discontent is unified, then it becomes a much more potent opposition," says Adam Schwarz of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Isolated as such, students on campuses are not politically significant, but it carries the potential to become much more significant."

Last week, Suharto gave security forces the green light to use force if the students did not stop the demonstrations.

"As long as their goals are constructive, I think it's good," says Gen. Wiranto, chief of the armed forces. "Like the demand to have a clean Cabinet, that's normal and constructive. But if they become destructive, disturb the peace and step on other people's rights, then it's not correct."

"The students are not afraid of such warnings," said Rais, who encouraged Indonesia's powerful military to support the students' demands for reform.

Protest at an Indonesian university  

"The pressure should not cease, although there has been appeasement from the government," Rais added.

He was referring to talks senior Cabinet ministers held with student representatives on Saturday, when the government listened with unusual good grace as speakers launched an all-out attack on the administration.

The students say political reform is necessary along with economic reform and blame the nation's woes on Suharto's "crony capitalism."

Political analysts say the participants in the talks Saturday did not include students from universities at the forefront of the protests, and that the demonstrations were likely to continue.

Jakarta Bureau Chief Maria Ressa and Reuters contributed to this report.


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