Bitter Indonesians vent fury at failing dictator

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AT THE height of this week's riots in the city of Medan the crowds of looters forced their way through the reinforced shutters of motorcycle show rooms. The bikes, brand new Hondas and Suzukis, would be the pride of any Indonesian kampong, the poor urban neighbourhoods from which most of the rioters had come.

But the looters did not steal them, or even write them off in a joy ride. They simply doused them in petrol and set fire to them on the spot. Nothing could better symbolise the waste, bitterness and alarming nihilism of the Medan riots than those burnt-out skeletons still visible around the city.

Yesterday, after three days during which they lost control of central areas of Medan, the police and army had regained the upper hand. Soldiers and marines shouldering M-16s drove up and down the city centre in open trucks, and a pair of armoured cars mounted with cannons trundled along the street where the worst of the looting had taken place.

There were no reports of shooting; in Jakarta, Indonesia's military commander, General Wiranto, denied that anyone had died when the police and army fired rubber and live rounds the day before. The chief of police in North Sumatra was more cautious; he insisted there were "not many" fatalities; a local paper put the number at six dead. When looting did take place yesterday, it was desultory, pointless and racist, aimed almost exclusively at the minority Chinese community. If Medan is, as many believe, an augury of what is in store for the country as a whole, Indonesia's future is grim.

The shops, and many homes in the city, fall into two types. Those open for business are adorned with advertisements making clear the crucial that they are not Chinese-owned. Some householders have rugs draped from their balconies bearing lines from the Koran. Most have handwritten signs reading: "Muslim shop", "Native Indonesian Shop", "Shop Owned By One Who Has Done The Haj". Chinese shops, the majority in some streets, are locked, shuttered and abandoned. Many, if not burnt out, are marked by ragged holes in their windows where stones have sailed through.

A further glimpse of Indonesia's potential future could be found in the city's hotels and airports. The former are bustling, partly with journalists who have flown in to cover the mayhem, but mostly with families of well- off local Chinese, standing nervously around the lobbies in their designer casuals, thinking unhappily of the homes which they have abandoned, just a few miles away. Yesterday, the flights from Medan to Jakarta and to Singapore were similarly crammed.

Until last Sunday, Medan was the centre of political protests by university students, but overnight it changed. The riots were triggered on Monday when the cost of fuel went up by 70 per cent - but for many of those who participated, the protests were not even about food and rising prices, and they are not about revolution. They were simply a statement of frustration by people ruled by Suharto, a failing dictator who allows them no other way to express their anger.