The deadly meaning of running amok

Richard Lloyd Parry was the only British reporter to witness Indonesia' s latest whirlwind of violence in Banjarmasin
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The Independent Online
As far as I can make out through the bulging pieces of transparent plastic and the flies trapped underneath, there is a single corpse lying on the table. The mortuary attendant says that is wrong, and tells me to look again. There is one clearly visible skull, scorched down to the bone and cracked from side to side by the intense heat, but there are four charred arms, and at least three of what might be feet.

These sticky black lumps, heaped together on a metal table, once belonged to two men; the doctors believe they were in their late twenties. But even they are having difficulty separating one from the other. Since they were scooped out yesterday from the remains of a burned-out department store, 20 people have come to see the corpses, none of them have been able to identify them as missing relatives.

There are at least 132 similar bodies in Banjarmasin, burned beyond recognition in the worst electoral violence Indonesia has seen since President Suharto came to power 32 years ago. In the four-storey Mitra Plaza shopping centre, 70 corpses were found huddled in a single spot where they had clustered in a last attempt to escape the flames and smoke. "By the time they realised that their friends had started the fire on the ground, it was too late," said a police officer who believed that they had all been looters. "They can't use the escalators, because they are burning. They can't get through the windows, because the glass is 10 millimetres thick. Their faces are gone, their ID cards are burned. They will never be identified."

The English expression "run amok" comes from Malay. In this regional city on the southern tip of Borneo, the phrase has vindicated its origins. Banjarmasin, capital of Indonesia's South Kalimantan province, was always a haphazard town. But yesterday, 48 hours after the riots on Friday evening, it looked as if it has been hit by an earthquake. Three shopping centres, one hotel, and the offices of the ruling party have been burned out. One Protestant church has been razed, and the Catholic damaged. A city block, including a school and a kampong, a poor settlement which housed 500 families, has been reduced to ashes. In the city centre, virtually no window remains unbroken.

Apart from the 134 confirmed dead, rumours are already circulating that the armed forces carried out summary executions as it mopped up afterwards. And yet, even as the last of the fires are extinguished, and the scale of the damage and casualties becomes clear, nobody seems able to answer the fundamental questions: why did this happen, and what does it indicate about Indonesia as a whole?

On the face of it, the answer is simple. Friday was the last day of the campaign period for Indonesia's general election which takes place across the archipelago on Thursday. It was the turn of Golkar, the ruling party of President Suharto, to campaign in Kalimantan, and in Banjarmasin, spirits were high among its activists who drove around the town on motorbikes, dressed in the party's yellow colours.

According to eyewitnesses, their jubilation disturbed the morning prayers of Muslims, including supporters of the rival United Development Party (PPP), who formed a rival mob. It began accosting the Golkar supporters, and forcing them to take off their yellow T-shirts, and make the PPP's one-fingered salute. Even women were stripped to their underwear, and a 13-year-old boy named had his wrist broken for wearing a Golkar T-shirt. "Somebody gave it to him that morning," said his father. "What does he know about politics? He just wanted to wear his new shirt."

The mob smashed the windows of the Catholic carthedral, and set fire to the city's most expensive hotel, the Kalimantan. The Golkar office was next, and then a Protestant church, which in turn ignited the kampong behind it. At 6.30 pm a cinema and department store caught fire. At 9.30 the crowd, estimated at tens of thousands, reached the Mitra Plaza which they began looting. 131 of them never left.

There are sectarian, economic and political strands to the conflict, but none on its own is adequate to explain the nature of the violence. The destruction of the churches clearly expressed the anger of Muslims with the Christian majority - but many of those who suffered the most on Friday were Muslim. Many of the buildings that were burned were symbols of wealth and unattainable affluence - but the Protestant church and the kampong behind belonged to the poor. In one sense, it was a battle between Golkar and the PPP - but politics was the last thing on the minds of the looters. The election, as Indonesians well understand, is in any case a sham, a mere rubberstamp for another five years of Golkar rule.

Banjarmasin has never seen anything like this before. The city, after all, experienced only the worst of several unconnected riots in cities all over Indonesia, including the capital, Jakarta. Perhaps the best explanation is the most general. "This was just an opportunity," said a tour guide. "The people cannot be patient any more in waiting for democracy. They did this because they were capable of doing it."

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