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Indonesia beset by uncertainty and poverty

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When traffic lights blink red at big intersections, beggars, vendors and street musicians swarm around cars, insistently tapping on rolled-up windows.

Cadgers abound now in Jakarta, the jobless victims of a yearlong economic crisis in Asia that refuses to let up. Most evenings, two dozen hustlers jostle on a curb near a cluster of luxury hotels. A few months ago, just a couple lingered.This capital of 10 million people, where slums lined with sewage-choked canals nestle near high-walled mansions and gleaming office towers, is beset by uncertainty and worry about social chaos.

Some residents fear spreading poverty will trigger more violence like the riots over price increases last month that killed as many as 1,200 people and drove President Suharto from office. Many ethnic Chinese, who were targeted in the mayhem, fled overseas and have not returned.

"There's still food around, but the money is gone," said Jumaedi, a truck driver sitting in a rundown restaurant with a few buddies and eating a rice and egg dish that cost the equivalent of 10 cents.

While new President B.J. Habibie pushes an agenda of democratic reform, doubts are rife about his ability to harness this vast nation of 17,000 islands and 202 million people.

Many view a swelling of daily street rallies tied to myriad causes as an omen of looming political chaos. Growing testy, military com-manders sent hundreds of soldiers to block workers trying to march last week to Parliament to demand Habibie's ouster.

"Politically, we just do not know where to go at present. There is no clear direction," said Harry Tjan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private think tank.

Some foreigners who were evacuated during the riots never came back, and those still in town are edgy. One real estate advertisement in The Jakarta Post, an English-language newspaper, offers a home with a swimming pool in a "riot-free location."

"Protect your family and your budget," tempts another ad for an apartment in a complex with security guards.

The military is on alert. Soldiers in berets sometimes lounge on side-walks outside shopping centers or cruise the streets aboard olive-green trucks.

Armored cars park at both ends of the tree-lined lane where Su-har-to lives, extra security for the authoritarian leader who quit May 21 after 32 years in power. Anger over the vast wealth he and his family amassed is widespread.

Candor in government is a new, refreshing trend. Information Minister Yunus Yosfiah suggested his office be disbanded because it wasted money and, ironically, had only stalled the spread of in-for-ma-tion.

Habibie has pledged general elections next year and freed some political prisoners.

Yet political reform is abstract for millions of Indonesians with no jobs and little money.

Many bus drivers can't work because there is no cash for imported spare parts. Occupancy in some hotels hovers at a paltry 10 percent, and cranes sit idle on construction sites.