As the country struggles through a political crisis, provocateurs are being used to stir up tensions between the Muslim majority and minority Christians. Yesterday's rioting grew out of a brawl outside a Jakarta nightclub between local Muslims and Christians from the island of Ambon in eastern Indonesia.
Several hundred Ambonese Christians, armed with Samurai swords, poured into the poor Ketapang area of northern Jakarta just after dawn and fought with local residents armed with machetes.
The battle turned into a manhunt that lasted several hours. Muslim crowds then attacked 11 churches across north and central Jakarta in retaliation. They smashed shop windows and burned several cars. Hundreds of troops were sent in and the city was quiet again by nightfall. It was not clear if there were casualties in the riot, the second of its kind in less than 10 days.
The troops deployed armoured vehicles and fired shots into the air, but there were few direct clashes with rioters. The army, under heavy public criticism for killing several student protesters on 13 November, lacks the manpower or the will to use massive force.
Indonesia has been in turmoil since the fall of former president Suharto last May. The new government of President BJ Habibie is committed to democratising Mr Suharto's corrupt and dictatorial system. But few people trust Mr Habibie, once a close friend of Mr Suharto, to keep his promises.
Some Western diplomats believe that vested interests are hiring thugs to slow down reform by stirring up racial and religious tensions in this ethnically diverse, mainly Muslim country of 200 million people. There is no proof so far for the widespread popular belief in Indonesia that Mr Suharto and his allies are responsible for the trouble.
Law and order is breaking down as the country's millions of poor people lose their fear of the security forces. One Western diplomat watched a gang of young men catch and butcher one fugitive. "I saw one of them lick the blood off his machete," he said.
The cut and bruised body, the skin already turning grey, was shoved into a rubbish cart and paraded around the streets.
Radical Muslim activists from a little-known group called Front for the Defence of Islam caught one young alleged Christian hoodlum and showed him off to journalists. Tahan Manahan Simatupang, 22, from north Sumatra, said he had been recruited by three ethnic Chinese and paid 40,000 rupiah (about pounds 3) a day to cause trouble for local Muslims.
"I don't know why I was recruited," he said, speaking through a badly swollen lip.
Tubagus Mohammed Sidik, head of the Front's intelligence unit, sat beside Mr Simatupang and prompted his answers. "We want to know if the government is behind this," Mr Sidik said, adding that the young man would be kept alive as a witness.
A foreign photographer was later told by locals that Mr Simatupang had been killed.Reuse content