Washington Times, May 7, 1998

JAKARTA, Indonesia – Police used rubber bullets and live ammunition to quell riots that left at least six persons dead yesterday, aggravating a crisis that has begun to undermine the principles that sustain President Suharto in power.

It was the third straight day of riots sparked by increases in food, fuel and electricity prices ordered by the International Monetary Fund as a condition of its $43 billion economic bailout.

Combined with lurid accounts of the torture of dissidents released from jail this week, the riots are leading major segments of society, for the first time in Suharto’s two-decade rule, to question the doctrine of consensus that lies at the heart of Indonesian culture.

Increasingly violent student protests had been building for weeks at universities across the country even before the price increases were announced on Monday.

The worst of this week’s riots occurred in the Sumatran city of Medan, where local reporters told Reuters news agency at least six persons were killed yesterday in burning buildings or by gunfire from security forces.

Mobs looted and burned shops and vehicles in the commodities trading center of 2 million people, sending the rupiah currency into a 10-percent tailspin on fears the violence might spread across Indonesia.

Thousands of students also demonstrated in Jakarta, Bandung in West Java, Yogyakarta in Central Java, and Indonesia’s second city of Surabaya in East Java. One person was reported killed in the town of Lubukpakam near Medan.

Until this week, the military and police had largely succeeded in confining the demonstrations to campuses. Still, the students appear to be serving as a mouthpiece for frustrations being felt across society.

“It is difficult for {older people} to speak out,” said one retired bureaucrat. “We have jobs and status, and in our culture one does not criticize or cause unpleasantness.”

The fuel and electricity price boosts of as much as 71 percent were the latest blow to a population already staggering under the effects of soaring inflation, food shortages and mounting unemployment. At least 9 million jobs have been lost since the economic crisis began in July.

The IMF had demanded that Suharto lift or reduce subsidies on a range of basic products as a condition for its $43 billion bailout package, the latest $1 billion payment of which was released Monday. Bus fares immediately shot up by 60 percent.

“How are the people supposed to react when each day there is a new burden for them to bear?” asked H.M. Buang, a member of parliament for the opposition United Development Party.

The economic crisis and a prolonged drought had already driven up the cost of food. A recent U.N. report warned that 7.5 million Indonesians face food shortages, with the urban poor expected to be the hardest hit.

Despite the growing frustration, criticism in Jakarta’s middle class suburbs remain muted.

Anti-government articles are quietly passed among friends, and tales of corruption are traded over tea. But, at least for now, most Indonesians are leaving open criticism to the students and a handful of opposition figures.

“This is a society that has always valued harmony above all else, and encouraged the concept that the `bapak,’ or father figure, always knows best. Now many people no longer believe that, but . . . don’t know how to react,” said opposition politician Budi Hardjono.

The sense of unease has been aggravated in recent days by the emergence from captivity of nine of at least 14 activists who had disappeared in the last few months.

One dissident, Pius Lustrilanang, told reporters he was beaten by his unknown kidnappers, subjected to electric shock torture, held in a cell for two months and warned that if he went public after his release, he would be killed. He immediately left for Holland.

The others refused to discuss their experiences, citing similar threats. One man was freed at the National Police headquarters after officials said they “found” him in a cell.

The National Human Rights Commission attributed the kidnappings to a “well organized” group.

“There is now a growing perception among the public that there is a possibility that the state security apparatus was involved,” the commission said in a statement.

The military has denied involvement, even as it has taken an increasingly hard line against the students. Attempts at a dialogue between students and the military have given way to stepped up clashes and threats.

“I have ordered all regional military commanders to take stern action to prevent anarchy,” announced Gen. Wiranto, the minister of defense and armed forces commander, who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.

Suharto, meanwhile, has made clear there will be no political reform before he completes the five-year term he began in March.

The country may begin “thinking about reforms,” said Minister of Home Affairs Hartono after a meeting with the 76-year-old president, but “whatever reform concepts are produced today, they will not be used in the current five-year period.”


Photo (color), FANNING FLAMES OF OUTRAGE: An Indonesian youth contributes to a pile of burning motorcycles looted from a shop in the northern Sumatra city of Medan yesterday. Fuel prices have skyrocketed 71 percent, sparking the latest rioting. (WILD ART, A1), By AP


By Lawrence Pintak

Lawrence Pintak is an award-winning journalist and scholar. He is a former CBS News Middle East correspondent and was founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University (2009-2016). He was named a Fellow of the Society by the Society of Professional Journalists in 2017 for "outstanding service to the profession of journalism" around the world. Pintak is a contributor to ForeignPolicy.com, The Daily Beast, and other outlets. Read his articles at pintak.com. His books include Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & The War of Ideas; Islam for Journalists (co-editor); The New Arab Journalist; and Seeds of Hate: How America’s Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad. He holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Follow him on Twitter @LPintak.

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