Thousands go on rampage in Java

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS OF poor Indonesians ran riot in Java at the weekend, burning and looting property owned by the ethnic Chinese community, as President BJ Habibie sought to defuse the mounting economic and racial tension in the country.

In an alarming replay of events earlier in the year, mobs vandalised and burned Chinese-owned warehouses, boats, cars and homes in two days of disturbances in Cilacap, in central Java.

Indonesia's former president, Suharto, was pressured into resigning in May after two days of uncontrolled rioting in Jakarta, much of which was also directed at the country's small but wealthy Chinese population.

The latest turmoil came at the end of a week of violence in Indonesia, where inflation and food shortages are forcing millions into poverty. At least one person was shot dead when police and soldiers broke up a rally by opposition supporters on the island of Sulawesi, and rice mills and food shops were reported to have been looted by a hungry mob in the east Javan town of Situbondo.

There were conflicting reports from Cilacap of what triggered the riots on Friday and Saturday. The Jakarta Post cited anger over alleged extortion by government officials and low wages among fishing boat crews, who are paid about 12p a day. But local police blamed the chaos on rumours of the imminent arrival of Chinese-owned fishing boats from Sumatra.

"There are already 300 large fishing boats [from Sumatra] in Cilacap. I guess the rumour angered the fishermen, since they feared a threat to their livelihood," Colonel Noer Muis, Cilacap's military commander said. Eight of the fishing boats were burned on Friday along with cars and buildings, and it was not until late at night that police and troops restored order.

On Saturday morning, rioters burned shrimp and jellyfish warehouses and looted ethnic Chinese homes. Several dozen people have been arrested.

In Jakarta, President Habibie attempted to put a lid on the simmering unrest by insisting that the earlier wave of rioting, in May, had not been motivated by racial hatred. "It is not based on ethnic values but injustice and frustration over the social gap," he told Hong Kong's Sunday Morning Post. "This could happen in Hong Kong or Peking. It is not ethnic outrage."

The government appears to be in denial about the event, when some 1,200 people died and more than 150 women, most of them ethnic Chinese, are believed to have been raped, often by gangs of men.

Non-governmental organisations and Indonesia's official National Commission on Human Rights have documented the rapes, and President Habibie himself offered an apology. Now, according to Indonesia's Minister for Women's Affairs, Tutty Alawiah, there is no evidence they took place.