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Indonesians grumble over price increases for gas, transportation

Thousands of cars lined up at gas stations across the country Monday to fill up their tanks before government-ordered price increases swipe another slice of Indonesians' already-pinched earnings.

Police took up positions at some stations to keep the lid on public anger after the government decided to roll back subsidies that have long defrayed the costs of everything from fuel to bus fares.

The move fulfills Indonesia's promise to the International Monetary Fund, which is holding the pursestrings for a $43-billion bailout package. But President Suharto's government is in a very uncomfortable spot _ caught between pledges to impatient overseas lenders and Indonesians staging protests over inequities in the country's faltering economy. Student leaders vowed to intensify near-daily demonstrations aimed at bringing down Suharto.

"Life has become more difficult, and people here are becoming poorer," said Edi Joko, a car salesman. "The power holders just relax since they have more resources than people like us."

In cities and provincial towns throughout Indonesia, thousands of cars clogged the streets to buy fuel before the increase takes effect today _ raising the price from about 36 cents a gallon to 70 cents a gallon. Traffic jams in Jakarta, the capital, stretched for dozens of blocks. Some gas stations ran empty.

"I'll stay until my tank is full, even if I have to wait for hours," said Imam, a motorist waiting at a gas station near the palace.

Aside from the gas increases, kerosene will become 25 percent more expensive, said Minister of Mines and Energy Kuntoro Mangkusubroto. City bus fares will go up as much as 67 percent, and train and ferry tickets also will rise.

Electricity prices will jump by 20 percent later this month, with further increases in August and November, Kuntoro said.

The announcement is sure to please IMF officials, who have been adamant about a thorough overhaul of the economy in the face of hemming and hawing by Indonesian officials. In fact, IMF director Michel Camdessus said in Singapore on Monday that he has proposed that the IMF board, scheduled to meet later in the day, restart disbursement of aid to Indonesia, a largely Muslim country of 200-million people.

The United States also was encouraged. "We hope they will continue and consolidate this progress," Stuart Eizenstat, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, said in Washington. "There seems to be increased seriousness in implementing the package."

For ordinary Indonesians, however, the price increases are the latest painful reminder that their once-rising standard of living is only falling these days.

"I need three cans of kerosene a day," said Muhamad Sidi, a 42-year-old food vendor. "It'll mean trouble for me because my income is not going up, it's going down."