Lewa Pardomuan, Jakarta – Indonesian students launched a full-blown attack on the government during a rare dialogue with cabinet ministers on Saturday, accusing President Suharto of failing to respect the people's desires.
Some 250 students and scholars from various universities sat face to face with cabinet ministers and armed forces officials during the dialogue, called by the military in an effort to ease weeks of anti-government student protests.
Sixteen ministers, including Suharto's daughter Social Affairs Minister Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, chief economic minister Ginandjar Kartasasmita and Trade and Industry Minister Mohamad "Bob" Hasan, attended the dialogue.
"We are here to struggle for reform. We have seen how arrogant power is. The government has never even said sorry for the (currency) crisis which has strangled the people," said Ja'far Amirudin, a student from the state-run Surabaya Institute of Technology in Surabaya, East Java.
Eka Darma, a student from the state-run Udayana University in Denpasar, Bali said: "If the president and cabinet ministers are unable to lead the country, then they should have the guts to step down."
The government appeared to receive the criticism with good grace. "I ask for your willingness to give them time," said military chief and Defence Minister General Wiranto. "We are ready to be criticised," said Rukmana, Suharto's daughter.
Students from various universities across the archipelago have staged a series of anti-government protests because of the currency crisis, in which the rupiah currency has fallen more than 70 percent against the U.S. dollar.
In the Central Java city of Solo, police burst 12 tear gas shells to break up a protest by about 2,000 students calling for Suharto's resignation on Friday.
Protests have also been held in a dozen other citieis, including the capital Jakarta. Rising prices of essentials have also triggered riots in several cities.
"The protests stem from the fact that the students strongly reject the figure of Suharto as president," said Daniel Sparingga, political scientist from the state-run Airlangga university.
"If you (ministers) can assure the students there will be a solution coming from the president, I think there will be something promising," he said.
"To ask the students to stop the protests without trying to find a solution, I think it is only an illusion. The students have rejected the idea of resorting to violence. Please understand, the students are calling for reform through peaceful means," said Sparingga.
Economist Rizal Ramli, who attended the dialogue, said the government had to prove that it was really committed to solve the crisis and answer charges of nepotism.
"I am sorry to say this Sister Tutut (social minister Rukmana), there is talk out there that the cabinet consists of friends of President Suharto's children."
The new cabinet was formed last month after Suharto was re-elected for a seventh five-year term by the docile People's Consultative Assembly.
The students, many of whom received invitations for the talks on Friday, generally welcomed the event while hoping the government would come up with a follow-up to the dialogue.
Wiranto said the military was not against reform, provided that it was done in a gradual manner.
"The armed forces support reform. Radical reform won't be constitutional and we don't agree with that," he said.
He also asked students not to take to the streets for fear the protests would be exploited by vested interests and that the demonstrations could lead to destruction and anarchy.
Suharto last week issued his sternest warning yet to protesting students by giving security forces the green light to use "repressive measures" if persuasion failed, newspapers reported. "Security forces can apply repressive measures...in critical and emergency situations," Friday's Jakarta Post quoted him as saying in a written address for the 46th anniversary celebrations of the Army's special forces (Kopassus) on Thursday.
But he also warned officials not to break the law while containing the students and reminded them that repressive measures should be immediately followed up with acts to restore the situation, the Jakarta Post reported.