Indonesians delight in drawn out dramas called Wayang, often sitting up all night following the plot through countless twists and turns. Sometimes it is hard to tell when the wayang ends and reality begins.
Recent political events here are a case in point. The next general election is still more than two years away, but dissidents already have submitted petitions to parliament attacking the ruling govenment and students have staged antigovernment deomonstrations.
The government has retaliated by banning two university newspapers, blacklisting 50 influential critics, blacking out news of the crisis in South Korea and of the domestic political intrigues. Most recently, it has accused opponents of plotting to assassinate the president and 69 of his associates.
Like wayang, no one here has a clue where it all will lead. One can only lean back and watch the convoluted plot wind its way to a conclusion.
Defense Minister Mohammed Jusuf has insisted the political situation here is very calm. "There is nothing to worry about," he said.
But former defense minister H. Nasution, a leading government critic, compared the present mood to 1978 when political and social unrest erupted in violence. "The volcano is again becoming more and more explosive," he said.
At center stage is President Suharto. His tenure has stretched over 13 years of relative political calm. The latest World Bank report said economic achievements here have been substantial under Suharto but added, "the dimensions of poverty in Indonesia, although declining, remain overwhelming."
Despite his long reign over the world's largest Moslem country and fifth most populous nation, Suharto rarely ventures from Indonesia and is little known in international political circles.
Even at home, he remains as shadowy a figure as the leather puppets used in one form of wayang. Suharto's low-profile leadership pales in light of the charisma of his predecessor Sukarno in the minds of many Indonesians.
Ironically, Suharto himself touched off the current round of restlessness with a rare show of emotion.
In an impromptu speech to an Army brigade in April, Suharto blasted rumors that his wife is corrupt. The stocky, silver-haired Suharto also denied having a love affair with a local movie actress.
"Such rumors are aimed at brushing me aside, because it's possible that they view me as a major obstacle to their political design," he said without identifying "they."
"If they succeeded in kicking me out, there would still be other forces preventing them from changing the pascasila (Indonesia's bill of rights) in the 1945 constitution," he added.
The speech made it obvious that Suharto, 59, plans to continue as president, despite earlier conjecture that he might step down when his current term expires in 1983.
Last month, 50 prominent leaders signed a petition calling on parliament to censure Suharto for his outburst. The document, which was not published in the indonesian press, charged that the president had equated himself with the bill of rights and had called on the military to keep him in power.
The petitioners included three former prime ministers, several influential Moslem community leaders and former Army generals and Navy admirals.
Retired Lt. Gen. Ali Sadikin, who was once a popular governor of Jakarta, said the group's main concern is that the electoral system has been rigged so that Suharto could remain president indefinitely.
"Political circles in the U.S. and other Western countries that support this government are stupid if they believe there is a democracy in Indonesia," Sadikin said.
Under the current system, a congress composed of five factions chooses a president at five-year intervals. Through political appointments, Suharto commands support of three factions: the military, the golkar "functional group" and regional representatives. The other two, a "democratic party" and a Moslem party, have little power.
Nasution likened the system to South Korea's and warned it could provoke similar upheavals.
"The government is like a cancer . . . once you've got it, you've got a crisis," he said.
Of seven generals marked for assassination during the bloody 1965 coup attempt, Nasution was the only one who escaped alive although his seven-year-old daughter died in a shootout.
Nasution was a senior officer, but Suharto mustered the support of the Army to propel himself to the presidency after the late Sukarno was ousted.
Both Nasution, Sadikin and others who signed the petition have been interrogated by security agents and subjected to other harassment. They cannot travel abroad and have difficulty making bank transactions.
Former national police chief Hugeng performed in a singing group called the "Hawaiian Seniors," the stars of Indonesia's longest running television show. After 12 years on the air, the government cancelled the show the week after Hugeng signed the petition.
Suharto's intelligence and security chiefs claimed early this month to have discovered a plot to remove the president and 69 others, possibly by assassination this August and replace them with a temporary government headed by Defense Minister Jusuf, who has attracted a popular following among the masses.
Nasution countered that a platform paper drawn up last year by retired generals had been doctored by security agents to make it appear as if a coup was in the wind and to justify a crackdown on opponents.
Observers here believe the possibility that groups like Nasution's, student dissidents and disgruntled Moslems may join hands is Suharto's biggest concern.
Indonesians generally do not practice Islam with the ardor of the Arabs. However, about 130 million of this country's 140 million people are Moslems. Occasional disturbances among small pockets of more zealous sects have been quickly put down by the Army.
The government rankled students by replacing democratically-elected student councils with university-appointed groups. The move sparked the largest demonstrations here in two years.
This month, more than 250 student leaders from universities throughout Indonesia marched on parliament with a resolution critical of Suharto and added their support to the petition presented earlier by Nasution's group. a
Indira K. Budenani, 28, a University of Indonesia student, spent six months in jail where he said he was subjected to psychological torture for antigovernment activities.
"We want a more people-oriented government, not capitalistic, but more socialistic and more democratic. We want a clean government," Budenani said. s
Charges of corruption have been a continuing source of embarrassment to Suharto. The government itself underlined the extent of the problem by filing suit in Singapore to recover $30 million from the bank account of a former executive of the Pertamina State Oil Company. The suit charges that the man, now dead, had a salary of only $9,000 annually, but had built his fortune on illegal commissions from company contracts.
Despite such problems, Western diplomats and many Indonesians still give the president high marks for bringing order and improved living standards out of the economic chaos and poverty of the Sukarno years.
One knowledgeable diplomat characterized the current criticism as "mere pinpricks in Suharto's side."
"It's shown he is more emotional than he appears on the surface," the diplomat said. "But he's also more astute and more clever than people realize. He is lacking charisma. But then again, Suharto doesn't really invite the sheer hatreds that could cause his downfall like the shah did in Iran."