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  •   Indonesia's Leader Stands Tough

    By Cindy Shiner
    Special to The Washington Post
    Saturday, May 2, 1998; Page A01

    MEDAN, Indonesia, May 1—President Suharto today ruled out any chance of political reform before his term ends in five years as students continued to press their demands for change in clashes with security forces here and in other cities.

    "If there is any intention for political reform, it should be prepared for the year 2003, after the present government finishes its term," Home Affairs Minister Radan Hartono quoted Suharto as saying.

    Suharto, Asia's longest-serving leader, met with political leaders and government ministers today ahead of a crucial meeting of the International Monetary Fund on Monday when officials are to decide whether to release the latest installment of a $43 billion economic bailout.

    The March payment was suspended because the government failed to comply with reform measures. The economic crisis, brought on by the collapse of the national currency, the rupiah, has aggravated political tensions in Indonesia stemming from Suharto's authoritarian rule. Skyrocketing prices have provided fodder for students seeking more wide-ranging reforms, including Suharto's departure.

    The Clinton administration has warned the Suharto government that a repressive crackdown on the escalating student protests could jeopardize the IMF-led economic bailout. However, administration officials have stopped short of threatening to cut off the flow of rescue funds, fearing that to deny Indonesia badly-needed cash could further wreck the economy and cause more social unrest.

    Suharto, 76, is facing the country's worst economic and political crisis since he took office 32 years ago during a period of unrest when anti-communist student demonstrations helped carry him to power.

    Suharto has long resisted opening the country to wider political participation, and his regime has survived with the firm support of the Indonesian military. While there is widespread discontent because of the effects of the economic crisis, the political opposition, weak and divided, has not attempted to mobilize mass demonstrations to confront Suharto. But the student protesters have become increasingly bold.

    Here in Medan, on the island of Sumatra, hundreds of students hurled molotov cocktails and rocks today at hundreds of riot police officers who had sealed off two campuses. The security forces, armed with truncheons and shields, fired back volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.

    Students at Mommensen University near the center of town drenched cloths with water to protect their faces from the stinging gas. One student beat out a rhythm on a tin drum while several young men hurled stones at police over the campus gate.

    "It looks like the military isn't here to protect citizens anymore but is going against them," said one student leader, who gave his name only as Haris.

    In Jakarta, the capital, students at a rally shouted, "Bring down prices, bring down Suharto." Other protests were reported in Yogyakarta, Surabaya and Bandung.

    Security forces have largely held back from charging at the students but there are growing fears of a crackdown in the absence of any sustainable dialogue with the military or concessions by the government or the students.

    When Suharto took power three decades ago, the students who were filling the streets had the support of the military and the general population. This latest round of demonstrations -- which began two months ago, before Suharto's appointment to a seventh five-year term by a rubber-stamp national assembly -- has largely been a students-only phenomenon. Student leaders blame that on their isolation -- security forces have prevented them from leaving their campuses.

    Suharto has refrained from directly addressing the student problems but has implied that there is a limit to his tolerance.

    "Any attempts to disrupt the interests of national development and stability should be countered," Hartono quoted Suharto as saying. He said if the demonstrators "don't understand the effects of their actions, we will face them."

    Western nations have been stepping up pressure on the Suharto government to respect human rights after reports of the abductions of about 15 political activists by shadowy groups suspected of having links to the country's security forces.

    One activist, Pius Lustrilanang, said Monday that he had been tortured during his two-month detention earlier this year. He has since fled to the Netherlands.

    Indonesian officials said today that police would investigate the disappearances to find out if any members of the military were involved. Several protesters reportedly were detained in Medan today, but it was unclear if they had been released by evening.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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