As Indonesia holds an election, a small town in Borneo burns

Richard Lloyd Parry witnesses the aftermath of a night of violence after Muslim rioters ran amok
Click to follow
Indonesia is the country that gave us the word amok, and from the moment you land in the city of Banjarmasin, on the southern tip of Borneo, you can tell that something is badly wrong.

Even at the airport, the taxi drivers are reluctant to go into town, and expect to be paid double for the risk.

On the outskirts of the city, the capital of the province of South Kalimantan, you start seeing boarded-up windows and plate glass buildings speckled with small, ragged holes. Further in there are knots of soldiers on street corners carrying automatic rifles.

But it is only when you cross the bridge into the city centre that you register the most sinister thing about Banjarmasin. Pervading the entire area, in hotels, cars, and on the street, is the smell of fire.

Last night, 24 hours after the worst riots Indonesia has seen for nearly a year, parts of Banjarmasin were still burning. The cinema, the supermarket and the shopping plaza were smouldering, as was the house of the government's senior official in the city. The reception area of the Kalimantan Hotel, the city's grandest, was a charred cave, with smudges of soot above its windows.

There were scattered blazes in what used to be the Batak Protestant Church and the poor settlement behind it. The metal cross someone had salvaged from the ashes was still hot to the touch. It was here we learned what had happened, from the groups of dusty people sifting pathetically through the remains.

The church's caretaker described the mob of Muslims, supporters of the United Development Party (PPP), whose battle with the ruling Golkar party took place on Friday, the last day of Indonesia's election campaign.

The church, about a quarter of a mile from a huge mosque, was attacked about 5pm, the caretaker said. The mob poured from the mosque and went on the rampage against Christians and Chinese. When they got to the church, they smashed windows, then torched the building. The flames quickly spread to the shacks behind, and when fire engines arrived they were stoned and driven back.

"They took out the chairs and tables and burned them in the street, then burned the church," the caretaker said. Residents said six other churches had been looted or stoned.

The caretaker - who refused to give his name - said the shanty town behind the church had housed some 500 families. Flimsy shacks vanished in the blaze, and a three-storey apartment block was gutted.

The homes closest to the church belonged to Chinese, who are a frequent target of rioting Muslim mobs in Indonesia.

A Chinese woman sifting through the debris of her home said perhaps the Muslims were jealous of Chinese wealth.

"Maybe they're jealous of our economic position. It has happened elsewhere in Indonesia and now it's happened here," she said.

By yesterday, with a curfew in force, the unrest had subsided. The government news agency was reporting four dead and 50 arrested, but it is hard to believe the number is so few: local journalists counted more than 50 bodies being carried out of the shopping centre alone.

Whatever happened here, there are no easy explanations, ethnic, political or economic. The riots are bound to keep alive the renewed controversy in Britain about continuing arms sales to Indonesia.

The mob was predominantly Muslim, but the settlement of 500 families they burned housed poor Muslims as well as Chinese Christians. They marched in the name of a political party - but the PPP is a tame poodle of President Suharto and knows it has no chance of unseating Golkar at the polls on Thursday. The rioters were apparently poor people burning shops and hotels patronised by the rich - but the congregation of the church are poor, too, and Banjarmasin, with its new bridge, airport and mosque, is booming with the wealth of timber, gold and diamonds transported down river from the interior of Borneo.

Banjarmasin simply saw the worst of a wave of rioting which engulfed cities in Sulawesi and East Java, as well as Jakarta, causing at least four other deaths.

Everyone knows the election is a fix, that the campaign is a game, and that Golkar will be elected once again. But on Friday the four-week election campaign came to an end, and with it the last legitimate chance that Indonesians will have to express their political will for the next five years. Perhaps it is not surprising it was an explosive occasion.