Frontline Jakarta, Indonesia: Brutal assaults felt like a grim dress rehearsal

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The Independent Online
IN TIMES of trouble in Indonesia, my strategy for self-protection has always been simple. Do not bother with cunning ploys or ingenious excuses. Do not attempt to hide in a tree or expect to run away. Stand up, smile a big stupid smile and make yourself as gangling, as conspicuous and as gormless as possible.

In a certain kind of riot, a loud Hawaiian shirt can be as effective as a flak jacket. Nothing disarms a suspicious soldier like an idiotic comment about what a pretty tank he is driving. When the water cannon spurt and the tear gas billows, it is the heroes who come a cropper and the dorks who come through unscathed. Cast from your mind images of Mel Gibson in The Year Of Living Dangerously. In Indonesia, my role model is Mr Bean.

But it doesn't work any more - starting last Friday afternoon when Indonesian soldiers indulged in 12 hours of sustained and indiscriminate shooting and beating up. In terms of savagery, it exceeded anything that I saw last May, when the shooting of four university students led to riots and the eventual resignation of President Suharto. The fact that the soldiers fired mostly plastic bullets and batons, rather than live rounds and bayonets, limited the numbers of dead to about 15. But the venom of the attack was fearful, especially in an army that maintains such political power in a country so unstable and divided.

The most alarming thing is that the truth about what happened, at the highest level, is already being rewritten. This week I visited Dewi Anwar Fortuna, a spokeswoman for President B J Habibie, and one of the most frank and able of his advisers. Her understanding of events is based upon the account of the shootings given by the chief of the armed forces, General Wiranto, who appears to have deliberately misled her and his president.

"Maybe it was a panic situation," she said. "It was the soldiers' duty to make sure the assembly proceeded peacefully ... Maybe they were genuinely afraid that if they were not able to stand up to the mobs, the mobs would be able to get into the assembly and disrupt the entire process."

But there were no "mobs": instead, from early in the afternoon of last Friday, a few thousand students began to gather in front of Atma Jaya university, to be joined by several thousand more people, most of them young men from poor neighbourhoods near by.They were unarmed, they were 20 minutes' walk from the parliament and the worst offence being committed was obstructing the traffic.

The soldiers I saw were not the overwrought wretches of Ms Dewi's description, but energetic combat troops. They began firing at 3.40pm, as armoured cars and water cannon trucks advanced down the road. The legitimate job of clearing the road was achieved in five minutes. But the barrage of shooting continued unabated for a full 15 minutes.

At least four people were fatally wounded during that first round of firing, but the first that President Habibie heard about it was at 9.30pm, nearly six hours after the first assault.

There were two more assaults that evening, and another one the next morning, equally brutal and pointless. It was not a crowd-clearing operation. There were few arrests - the soldiers chose to beat people rather than drag them away - and Australian colleagues of mine were beaten as they hid behind a wall, holding up their journalists' identity cards.

This was no place for Mr Bean - all you could do was duck and run. It was a soft massacre, with rubber and rattan rather than lead and steel, but it looked and felt like a dress rehearsal for something much worse.