Era of the mobile challenges old order

Indonesian violence: Marines move in to crush the worst unrest for 30 years, sparked by arrest of pro-democracy supporters
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It didn't seem likely that the soldiers would be able to tell us much but, as my companion pointed out, "in Indonesia, you never know". They were standing along a side-street in central Jakarta, down the road from the burned banks, the burned car showrooms, and the burned-out government offices which the rioters had fired the previous afternoon.

On Saturday, when the trouble started, the soldiers and riot police were armed only with bamboo batons, and the dem-onstrators got completely out of control. Today no chances were being taken. As well as their boots, fatigues, and berets (in a rather camp shade of pink), each marine carried a fat black rifle.

They were friendly enough, especially to my companion, a blonde television journalist wearing a striking pair of shorts. But they had nothing to say to us, and after half-a-dozen inconclusive attempts at conversation ("No English!", "No comment!") we headed back towards the car. Suddenly, flashing lights and shrill beeps began issuing from the mobile phone on my belt. It was Martin, an Indonesian teacher whom I had met on Friday, in the headquarters of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). "I left before the police came in, so I was not there, thank God," he said. "But have you heard about the deaths? My friend knows a doctor, and he told me that they were not police, but commandos in disguise, and when they went in, they had bayonets hidden in their clothes. Once they were inside, they started stabbing our people. There were 47 killed, and this morning they took the bodies out in amphibious vehicles and dropped them in the sea. No, I don't know who saw this. No, I have no evidence. The evidence is in the hospitals, and nobody can get into hospitals."

"My friend told me ... ". "I didn't see this, but ... " Since the PDI headquarters was raided on Saturday morning, Jakarta has been buzzing with rumours relayed across the city by hundreds of mobile phones. Taxi-bound in sweating traffic jams, in chilly air-conditioned hotel rooms, nervily watching the demonstrators pressing up against the police cordons - suddenly the little black box will squeak and flash with a new piece of intelligence from a friend or contact, always exciting, usually unreliable, often completely untrue. The PDI leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, will give a press conference at 5 o'clock (it never happened). There's a riot outside the Indonesian Legal Aid Centre (it was broken up two hours ago). And, most insistent and unprovable of all, the rumours of a massacre. These always contain an exact figure (47, 48, 170 or 200 dead) and a vague, but plausible, attribution (a doctor or "friend"). They are impossible to verify.

All week I have been marvelling at what a versatile and liberating device the mobile phone is. In Jakarta, for several reasons, it is indispensable. In a city of a million traffic jams, it can transform a frustrating baste in the back of an idling taxi into a productive gossip- and intelligence- gathering session. Apart from this, almost every diplomat, political activist and journalist in Indonesia seems to believe their phone is tapped: whether this is true or just self-dramatisation, the mobile provides a refreshing sense of anonymity and security. "May-be I'm just paranoid," people smile sheepishly. "But you never know."

A striking change has come over Jakarta in the past week, but whatever the challenge, the mobile phone is equal to it. I hired mine last Tuesday for the third meeting of the Asean Regional Forum, a serious-minded international think-in featuring foreign ministers from 20 countries. For the first few days, the phone was the traditional yuppie accessory - a tool for securing interviews and opening windows in the schedules of diplomats and press officers. But on Friday, the ministers flew home. On Saturday, the army went into the PDI, and overnight the phone was transformed from a servant of rulers to a tool of the oppressed.

One man who has spent most of the past three days on his cellular is Laksamana Sukardi, treasurer of the PDI. Having fixed up an interview (via our mobiles), I went to see him at his home on Friday evening, 12 hours before the storming of his headquarters and arrest of more than 100 of his colleagues. Mr Sukardi doesn't look like a dissident; he looks like a wealthy banker turned management consultant, which is exactly what he is. But in his twin roles of businessman and opposition politician, he epitomises the double-edged potential of the mobile phone.

"The world is changing so fast," he says, "and this is what the government fails to appreciate. Indonesians now are different from Indonesians 10 years ago, and the change has rendered the old system obsolete. The most important thing you need to maintain power is control of information. If you're alone, isolated, you're scared. If you can communicate, even across an archipelago of 200 million people, you get courage. The young generation of Indonesians is better informed than the government. They have cellular phones, they have the Internet. Even the climate is changing, and all these changes have rendered the old system obsolete. If the Indonesian government doesn't change, it will become like a dinosaur, a big powerful animal that cannot adjust."

But the dinosaur still has teeth and, like many elderly life forms, its behaviour is unpredictable. Three hours after the soldiers had been in and dragged the PDI supporters out, I spent 30 seconds in the wreckage of the party headquarters before being escorted out by scolding plain clothes policemen. I saw burned-out motorbikes, a rubble of stones and bamboo and trampled posters. But I saw no blood, and the water from the fire hoses was murky grey rather than pink. I have no reason to believe that anyone was murdered in Jakarta on Saturday. But the fact is that this government is one which many of its citizens believe is perfectly capable of killing them in cold blood.

The belief itself is condemnation enough and, in Indonesia at the moment, you just never know.