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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

IS A TIME BOMB TICKING?

The frustrations of the unemployed and the dispossessed could boil over -- with drastic consequences

By Sangwon Suh


Go to a map showing areas of unrest

LUKMAN IS A SUPERVISOR for a construction project in Central Jakarta. But the luxurious apartment complex the 38-year-old was helping build has been put on hold, a casualty of Indonesia's liquidity crisis and drastic economic slowdown. Lukman and his fellow workers are to be laid off. Life is already difficult enough for him without the prospect of a long spell of unemployment. The price of rice used to be 960 rupiah (11) per kilo; it has now jumped, he says, to 1,600 (19). "I would do anything to feed my wife and children," he says. More ominously, he adds: "I want to go to war, killing those people who have caused me trouble."

Anyone higher up the social ladder is a target of Lukman's anger. The government: "This is the globalization era, but they have been too loose." The tycoons: "They gulped down the nation's resources, but they have no responsibilities." Lukman is one of millions of ordinary Indonesians who feel that fate has suddenly turned on them. These people are not likely to understand the logic of economic cycles, the effects of a capital crunch and political machinations. But they do know one thing: they are helpless and angry. How this anger erupts and how it is directed could play a bigger role in deciding Indonesia's future course than the plans of international bankers, the outcome of power politics or the campaign of the opposition.

Authorities are watching nervously as Lebaran, the festive holiday that marks the close of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, approaches. Traditionally, Lebaran has been a time for feasts, new clothes and gift-giving. This year, the holidays are predicted to be the most subdued in recent memory, but most families and workers still have enough cash to celebrate together. "This is only an embryo of social unrest," says Arief Budiman, professor of Indonesian studies at the University of Melbourne. "As long as there is food on the table, there is no problem."

But when the food runs out, hold tight. After having drawn down their savings for Lebaran, Indonesians will return to a drastically different economic environment. Unemployment, always a difficult figure to set for Indonesia, is being estimated as high as 7 million. The revised government budget removes subsidies for fuel and electricity, as well as state monopolies on essential goods. Though the phasing out of the subsidies will not begin until April 1, food prices have already started to climb as a result of a drought that has ravaged the agricultural sector. In at least one place, vendors have been cutting bars of soap in half because people cannot afford the whole thing.

Kastorious Sinaga, a sociologist from the University of Indonesia, believes that the country is facing two kinds of unrest. The first is demonstrations led by activists. These, says Sinaga, "tend not to be destructive." Indeed, organized expressions of dissent are often tolerated by the country's watchful military. In recent weeks, as calls for political reform have become more public, the capital has seen almost daily demonstrations both in support and against the government in front of parliament. All have been peaceful.

Sinaga believes activists are being cautious, aware as they are of the crackdowns that followed the student-led demonstrations in 1974 which greeted the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei. But activists may also be looking at other historical precedents. During the twilight years of first president Sukarno's rule, student demonstrations -- backed by the Communists, Muslims and various military factions -- helped create a period of instability. "The students want to make sure they are not tools again," says Bonar Tigor Naipospos, an activist with a non-governmental organization who is familiar with the student community.

Far more dangerous is the second type of unrest: riots. Fueled by less controllable factors such as hunger and unemployment, these are spontaneous, disorganized and violent -- and more likely to spark a confrontation between government forces and the people. Already this year, there have been scattered, spontaneous riots across Java (see map), the most recent of which occurred in Kragan, Central Java, on Jan. 26. Some 17 shops were attacked after talk of sharp price increases.

While generally unpredictable, such spontaneous disturbances in the past have often been directed against the ethnic Chinese community. Making up less than 5% of the population, the Chinese are popularly believed to control over two-thirds of Indonesia's business. That may not necessarily be so, but perception is everything.

At the village level, they are usually the merchants who deal in staple goods and are easy economic targets for frustrated Indonesians. Lately, Chinese shopowners in Semarang have been confronted by shoppers shouting: "You Chinese! Why don't you go back to your homeland?" This kind of resentment can easily boil over to violence, as happened last year in Ujung Pandang on the island of Sulawesi, when mobs burned down Chinese-owned businesses and property after a mentally-disturbed ethnic Chinese man murdered a schoolchild. As a precaution, the governor of Jakarta reminded Chinese on Jan. 27 not to celebrate Lunar New Year in public.

Unfortunately, the Chinese have been sometimes used as safety valves to deflect anger away from other parties. Recently, there was an explosion at an underground cell of the outlawed People's Democratic Party; some of its members were supposedly making a bomb when it went off. Allegedly found at the scene was a document containing the name of prominent businessman Sofyan Wanandi, head of the Gemala Group. Wanandi was subsequently investigated by military intelligence. He said he had been cleared but the police added that he could be questioned again. On Jan. 27 and 28, Muslim protesters gathered outside a think tank connected to Wanandi and demanded that he be tried.

Some critics accuse the government of setting up the whole incident to cow the public and of using Wanandi, an occasional government critic, as an example. It is also notable that the tycoon is an ethnic Chinese (and a Catholic one at that), and the affair has done little to dissipate the anti-Chinese atmosphere that has been building up.

The irony is that while this may take the heat away from the government in the short run, it could spark riots pitting the majority Muslims against the minority Chinese, thereby creating the very turmoil that most ordinary Indonesians themselves desperately want to avoid.

-- With reporting by Yenni Kwok and Jose Manuel Tesoro/Jakarta


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