A nation descends into anarchy

Richard Lloyd Parry sees Jakarta ravaged by street mobs as the people of Indonesia turn against their dictator

THE FUTURE of President Suharto of Indonesia was in grave doubt last night after mounting popular unrest erupted in riots which devastated large areas of Jakarta and left the capital in a state of near anarchy.

The President was due to fly into Jakarta this morning, after reports in Indonesian newspapers that he will step down if he no longer had the "trust" of his people.

"If I am no longer trusted I will become a sage, and endeavour to get close to God," he was quoted as saying during a state visit to Egypt which was cut short by the escalating disturbances. "I will spend my time guiding my children so they become good people, guide the community and give advice."

President Suharto has in the past made similar statements, and his remarks were downplayed by his foreign minister, Ali Alatas. But in the President's absence there appeared to be a vacuum of power in the world's fourth biggest nation, as mobs of looters sacked large areas of the city unchecked by police or army.

Tanks and armoured cars were seen driving through the centre of town last night, and the Jakarta military commander, Major General Syafrie Syamsudin promised to "face rioters and looters firmly".

Potential successors to the President - including senior generals and opposition figures - made no public statements about the political situation and appeared to be biding their time. "The situation is going to improve," said General Wiranto, the chief of the armed forces. "Please believe in the military."

What began three days ago as a peaceful student demonstration has transformed itself in the past 48 hours into something that defies easy categorisation - part political protest, part pillage and part ethnic pogrom. Jakarta has been tense since Tuesday night when six students were shot dead by police breaking up a demonstration at a private university. On Wednesday, mobs of ordinary Jakartans rampaged along two streets adjoining the campus. Yesterday, after a night in which at least 11 people were burned alive after mobs set their homes alight, the anarchy spread throughout the city.

For miles the streets of Jakarta look like the set of a disaster film. Hundreds of shops, houses, public buildings, police stations, hotels, shopping centres and markets were burned. Among them were a Heineken beer brewery, the home of Liem Sioe Liong, one of Indonesia's richest men and a close friend of President Suharto, and the headquarters of the social affairs ministry which is run by the president's daughter, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana.

Shops and businesses closed down in most parts of central Jakarta. The toll road to the airport was closed, stranding many passengers in their hotels, and many outbound flights were filled up with retreating ex-patriates and ethnic Chinese Indonesians who are often scapegoated in times of unrest.

The Indonesian currency, the rupiah, whose collapse last summer set off economic turmoil throughout the country, fell steeply, further jeopardising the programme of economic reform and recovery agreed between the government and the International Monetary Fund.

By mid-morning yesterday, Gajah Mada Street, a main road linking central Jakarta with Chinatown and the docks to the north was empty of motorists as the looters set to work. Just before noon, a squadron of 30 helmeted troops on motorbikes roared out of the smoke towards the north.

Suddenly, the silhouettes of soldiers became visible firing into the air and taking level aim at people on the streets. Everyone ran for cover, the rounds fired were either blanks or the rubber coated bullets which have claimed several lives this week. But there were confirmed reports of only a handful of deaths or injuries by the end of the day.

By the afternoon, there was hardly a pane of glass left unsmashed. Dozens of cars were burned out or burning. For miles there were no police or soldiers to be seen and in several parts of the city the red-bereted marines, traditionally the favourites of ordinary people, were seen joining hands with looters.

Individual motivation is difficult to fathom, but even the most opportunistic of the rioters explain their actions in political terms. "It's revenge for what the military did to the students," said one man who identified himself as Danny. "Nepotism and corruption," shouted someone else. "The Chinese have debts, and we have to pay them," said another man.

A disproportionate number of the reported dead have been Chinese, and if racist sentiment catches hold among the Muslim majority then a truly dreadful situation looms. But the most vehement abuse was reserved for the President. An 18-year-old woman, Linda Putri, screwed up her face and spat out the words, "I hate Pak [Father] Harto."

Family nation, page 3

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence