Riddles while Jakarta burns

The military's mixed response to tackling the riots in Indonesia raises questions about its motives, Richard Lloyd Parry reports
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The Independent Online
THE KEBAB vendors of North Jakarta are tough boys, well used to life on the streets, but even they know that there is only one thing to do when the mob appears. "Run away! Run!" they shout, frantically wheeling their mobile stalls, as a crowd of shouting, excited young men jogs around the corner.

Behind them a column of smoke rises from a burning bank. The traffic on the street reverses direction, as taxis and motorcycles swerve and flee. The members of the mob smile and whoop when they see the foreign faces and the first thing they ask for is cigarettes.

When the cigarettes are gone, they want money. When money is refused, the smiles disappear and I find hands slipping into my pockets and bag. The kebab boys were right. Fending off the hands and increasingly hostile shoves and grabs, we walk, then trot, then run away down the street. Nearby, helmeted troops armed with automatic rifles are standing indifferently next to an armoured car.

Six months after two days of riots and looting drove President Suharto from power, the same thing is under way again. Jakarta is burning, and a little pickpocketing is the least of the soldiers' concerns.

There are similarities with the violence of last May, but also disturbing differences. The riots began after the deaths of student demonstrators, about a dozen of whom were killed on Friday when soldiers fired round after round of rubber-coated bullets into crowds of unarmed demonstrators.

Yesterday, as in May, the violence took a nasty ethnic turn, with almost all the destruction focusing on the shops and neighbourhoods of Indonesia's ethnic Chinese. And like the days leading up to the fall of Suharto, there is a sense that there is much more to this than meets the eye and that, beneath the chaos, something very sinister is going on.

For the students, yesterday was a relatively peaceful one. In the morning, thousands turned out for the funerals of their friends who had died the day before. In the afternoon, they streamed towards the parliament building, where members of the People's Consultative Assembly had met last week to pass democratic legal reforms which fell far short of the students' demands.

There they sat for hours, singing songs and delivering speeches before lines of troops. The violence occurred at the other end of Jakarta and - like May again - its perpetrators and its victims were Jakarta's poor.

At lunchtime, a mob stoned a police box in the west of the city, and by mid-afternoon rioters were marauding through the Chinatown district. There, shops still display boarded-up facades and broken windows from the last riots.

Many of them had been repaired and reopened quite recently. Within the space of a few hours yesterday, they were restored to their condition of six months ago.

Mobs of men moved down Mangar Besar, a street of Chinese houses, restaurants and coffee shops, pausing intermittently to hurl stones at the mirrored plate glass of Chinese-owned banks. Small boys conscientiously foraged for stones and for bricks, which they smashed into smaller missiles. There was less looting than in May and, by late afternoon at least, the scale of destruction was smaller.

But the atmosphere was tenser and more vicious. "Stay on the motorbike," shouted a man as we drove past a gang throwing stones at a burning car dealership. "It is dangerous. Do not get off."

Six months ago, strange though it sounds, there was an almost light-hearted atmosphere. Jakartans seemed scandalised and amused by their own daring as they carried away television sets and food.

There were far more women on the streets; many of the looted items were anonymously returned a few days later, and there was no anti-foreign sentiment. Yesterday, however, there numerous reports of foreign journalists and diplomats robbed, abused and threatened.

Small groups of soldiers who fired warning shots to drive away the mobs tried intermittently to prevent some of the rioting. "I have instructed the minister of defence to immediately take stern action against what is happening, in accordance with the law," President Suharto's successor, BJ Habibie, said in a televised broadcast.

But the security forces' actions in the past few days make little sense. On Friday, peaceful demonstrators were shot dead. Yesterday, as mobs marauded around the city, the soldiers were largely absent or indifferent. "The movement's actions have been categorised as treachery which endanger the country's unity as well as the life of the nation. Their actions are also heading towards toppling a legitimate government," President Habibie said.

Herein lies the most important question about events in Indonesia. Who is directing the military's actions and what do they hope to gain?

Yesterday foreign diplomats in Jakarta were picking through the possibilities. The favourite theory is that it is a ploy by someone to discredit the government of President Habibie, thus forcing him to stand aside. But for whom?

It could be to make way for General Wiranto, the head of the armed forces which, for all the odium it has attracted, remains by far the most powerful institution in Indonesia.

There is precedent for such a turn of events. In 1965, the then unknown General Suharto came to power after a supposedly communist "coup", which he almost certainly engineered himself.

Last night Western diplomats were seriously discussing rumours of an even more drastic possibility - that Suharto himself may even be hoping for a return to power.

Since his resignation, he has continued living in his home in Jakarta's Sandalwood Street, comfortably cushioned by the untold sums which he is believed to have squirrelled away during his dictatorship.

Last week, however, the old man suffered his most serious legal blow so far when he was named in a parliamentary resolution calling for an investigation into corruption.

The prospect of a peaceful Suharto comeback is inconceivable. It could only be accomplished by greater than ever repression. For the time being it remains an outside chance.

But nobody was reassured yesterday by a plaintive, rhetorical, and breath- takingly hypocritical question relayed from Suharto through a relative yesterday. "I resigned from my position to avoid bloodeshed," said the old dictator. "Why does the government now cause bloodshed?"