Indonesia: Looting and rioting hasten the end for Suharto

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Political riots, religious squabbles, outbreaks of cannibalism and now shops looted for food - the work of isolated troublemakers or the beginning of the end for President Suharto's Indonesia? Our correspondent reports from the latest trouble spots on the remote fringes of East Java.

The small port of Muncar, on the eastern coast of Java, is a fishy place in several ways and the stink from the docks is only the most obvious. At noon, it is no surprise that people are not very chatty - the tropical sun is at its height and the smell of last week's catch is so strong that it is almost unbearable to inhale through your nose. But even indoors there is a wariness about conversations here, out of the sun and out of sight of the soldiers, unusual numbers of whom still patrol the kippery streets.

Many of them are teenagers recruited locally, but a huge green truck rumbles by containing much beefier and tougher specimens, an elite unit previously deployed in the war in East Timor. Plenty of the shops are open as usual, although several of them have hand-written signs hanging outside bearing the words Toko Muslim Rek - "Shop of a Muslim friend" in the East Javanese dialect.

For a few of the shops, it is not business as usual: the shutters are closed, some of them stitched uncertainly together with nails and broken planks. Many of those that are trading have opened their shutters only a fraction, with a wary soldier standing nearby.

"The police tell us to do it like this," says one shopkeeper, like all the owners of the damaged shops, a Chinese. "If it happens again, it is easy to shut the place up quickly. Push, click - it is done."

Muncar is a town of a few thousand people and, but for what happened last week, it would be wholly insignificant. It was not in itself a momentous event but it raises a momentous question - was the trouble in Muncar, and a handful of neighbouring towns like it, isolated and containable? Or does it represent the first rumblings of what one leading critic, Amien Rais, described last week as "a political volcano" sitting underneath the Indonesian government, the beginnings of chaos and violence in the fourth biggest nation in the world?

What happened is clear enough: last Thursday at eight in the morning, a mob of several thousand people began rampaging through Muncar and looting shops. The shutters were forced with crow bars. Once inside, the rioters made off with large quantities of rice, cooking oil, sugar and flour, much of which was loaded into vehicles outside. It was evening before the police and army regained anything like control; for the next two days in Muncar there were similar, lesser incidents. One man, a Chinese, was stabbed and hospitalised, but later recovered.

There was similar trouble in similarly insignificant towns all over East Java - in Jember, a supermarket gutted by fire; looting in Bondowoso, Pasaruan and Srono. The identity of the perpetrators is murky - locals speak of a spontaneous overflow of anger; or of agents provocateurs with mysterious motives coming in from outside. But the underlying causes are easy to fathom. The goods looted are the staples of the Indonesian diet, and all have gone up sharply in price as the Indonesian rupiah has tumbled to less than a quarter of its former value, on top of last year's drought and crop failure. Until this week, when the government brought in cheap rice of its own, shopkeepers were charging as much as 1,800 rupiah compared to 1,000 a few weeks before.

This matters particularly because this is the equivalent of the week before Christmas in Indonesia. Two big traditional festivals are coming up before the end of the month - first Chinese New Year, then Eid al Fitr, end of the month of Ramadan when Muslims break their fast with banquets and celebrations. Shopkeepers of all races were charging these prices, but many Javanese Muslims in Muncar blame the minority population of ethnic Chinese. "The Chinese are uptight and greedy," said the Javanese proprietor of the local basket shop. "I support what happened, and it will happen again if the prices keep on going up."

And go up they surely will - yesterday, a week after the second of two agreements with the International Monetary Fund, the rupiah sank to its lowest level yet, breaking 12,000 to the US dollar. Food riots would be deeply worrying in any country, but in Indonesia they look alarmingly like the last straw.

In the last two years, Indonesia has seen civil disorder on a scale not seen since the 1960s; indeed it is hard to imagine a kind of riot that has not occurred somewhere in the country. There have been political riots - like those during last year's election campaign, and the even more serious ones that followed the government's ousting of the popular Megawati Sukarnoputri as leader of the Democratic Party in 1995. There have been religious riots - like the church burnings by mobs of in the city of Surabaya in 1996.

In the annexed territory of East Timor, with its Catholic majority, Christians have attacked Muslims. There have even been outbreaks of head-hunting and cannibalism by Dayak tribesmen on Borneo. The reasons are sometimes trivial, almost laughable - the church burnings in Surabaya, for instance, were triggered after a dog urinated on the wall of a mosque. But perhaps the various disputes themselves are only symptoms. What matters is the disease of which they speak, a broad, growing dissatisfaction among Indonesians of all classes, from jungle tribesmen to Jakarta yuppies.

"Thirty years ago, Suharto took over and made out of all the islands of Indonesia one country, and stopped the killing and the riots," says Dainuri, a school teacher from East Java. "But there are riots all over again - riots, riots, riots. First the general election, now the IMF and the monetary crisis."

President Suharto took power in the mid-1960s during a purge of communists which left half a million Indonesians dead. He succeeded in holding together his country of 200 million by bringing peace and progress. Literacy increased as fast as anywhere in the third world; economic growth averaged 7 per cent a year.

Only one thing has remained unchanged - the authoritarian rule of Suharto and his military backed government. Now, a young, newly educated middle class is looking for political freedoms to match their economic liberation. Life is no longer a struggle to survive, and Indonesians of all classes have come to regard growing prosperity not as a blessing but as a right.

This is why a town like Muncar matters so much and why the government is so concerned to nip such incidents in the bud. There is no sign of an imminent loss of control: middle-class discontent is balanced by an instinctive horror of anarchy, and the army and police maintain a formidable arsenal of equipment, including British crowd-control vehicles, for use against their own population.

But the next few weeks could be crucial. In East Java, subsidised food is being brought in for the end of Ramadan. In Jakarta, public celebrations have been banned for what promises to be a very nervous Chinese New Year.