Sat, 04 Jan 2003

Calls mount for Megawati to resign over utility hikes

Debbie A. Lubis, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The government's decision to hike fuel, electricity and telephone charges has drawn a strong public rejection, with many protesters demanding President Megawati Soekarnoputri step down.

Hundreds of students of the South Sulawesi capital of Makassar, Jakarta, and residents of the East Java capital of Surabaya staged rallies on Friday demanding that Megawati stop causing more suffering for the people, and that she quit her post.

"Megawati must step down from the presidency because of her inability to lead this country. Instead of bringing this country out of hardship, she is actually bringing more despair to the people through her policies," a student from the Makassar State University said as quoted by Antara.

The rally was held in front of the South Sulawesi provincial legislative building.

In Surabaya, dozens of residents marched along city thoroughfares, unfurling banners and holding aloft posters condemning Megawati's policies. Several of them pushed a minivan, with a motorcycle on board, symbolizing the people's inability to use their vehicles anymore due to the fuel price hike.

"Mbak (older sister) Mega has been oppressive to the common people. We will revoke our support for her leadership if she continues implementing her policies," one of the protesters said, while referring to the President by her nickname.

Some of the posters read, "We cannot afford to buy fuel", "Mbak Mega, don't add to our difficulties as we are already living in hardship", and "Fair and prosperous does not equal price hikes".

Students from Greater Jakarta grouped under the Forum Kota, urged the public to fight against the regime and demanded that Megawati, Vice President Hamzah Haz, People's Consultative Assembly Speaker Amien Rais, and House of Representatives Speaker Akbar Tandjung quit their respective posts.

The government increased electricity and telephone charges on Wednesday, and fuel prices the following day. The move is part of the efforts to reduce expensive government subsidies and help save ailing utility companies from bankruptcy.

The increase in utility rates is a sensitive issue that could provoke people to unite in a movement against the regime.

Students have proven their power in overthrowing authoritarian president Soeharto in 1998 after the regime introduced unpopular economic policies.

Students movement this time won the support of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other members of society, including political parties.

Some NGOs like Government Watch (GOWA), the Indonesian Consumers' Foundation (YLKI), Indonesian Women's Coalition (IWC), and the Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency (Fitra) have also expressed their indignation over the hikes in utility charges on Friday.

GOWA coordinator Farid R. Faqih urged Indonesian families, especially those from the middle and lower income groups, to launch a national strike against the policy.

Separately, YLKI chairwoman Indah Suksmaningsih said the state had committed violence against the people by implementing such policies and suggested that the public be courageous in expressing their views over what she termed such inhumane and unjust policies.

Many housewives across the country have locked their phones at home since Wednesday in a bid to control household expenses following the hike in phone charges.

"You can imagine how much I'll have to pay for the phone bill now given that before the increase I was already spending Rp 300,000 (US$33) per month on it. I'm afraid my family will not be able to eat," said a mother in Palu, Central Sulawesi.

The government's controversial move has also encouraged some political parties to court public favor over the price hike issue.

The National Awakening Party (PKB) said people were entitled to go on a national strike to reject the simultaneous increases in utility charges.

Deputy chairman of the National Mandate Party (PAN) A.M. Fatwa said on Friday that the price hikes would inflict even more suffering on the people as their purchasing power was already low.

Golkar Party chairman Akbar Tandjung, however, asked people not to launch a national strike as it would only make them suffer even more.

Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Jusuf Kalla said the public should take control over the use of the subsidy fund worth Rp 4 trillion generated from the utility charge hikes.