Sat, 04 Jan 2003

Calls mount for Megawati to step down over utility charge 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.

"It is time for us to get out from campuses, rush out from our blankets and beds, throw away our books and pens, leave our classrooms and lecturers, and ask for our parents' blessings. Take to the streets, it's time to move forward together in a people power movement," they proclaimed at the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle in Central Jakarta.

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. Their movement won the support of 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.

"This policy shows that our representatives in the House have failed to strive for the welfare of Indonesian families from the middle and lower classes," he said in a statement made available to The Jakarta Post.

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.

"I can't understand the way the government thinks. We, the workers, can forget about the increase in the provincial minimum wage this year as the increase in utility charges will increase the cost of living," said Joko Purnomo, 32, a worker in a manufacturing company in Surabaya, East Java.

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.

"Public control made last year's subsidy program for the poor, worth Rp 2.8 trillion, an effective one." he said.