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Muslim rampage tears Indonesia apart

Sydney Morning Herald - February 1, 1997

Louise Williams in Rengasdenklok, West Java – The makeshift sign propped up outside the barricaded petrol station read: "We are Muslims, do not burn us down." Along the smouldering streets packs of Muslim youths patrolled, intoxicated with rage, metal pipes swinging, excited by the destruction which lay before them.

They pounded on our car, yelling "Muslim? Muslim?", eyebrows raised in question, as they peered in. The driver gave them the thumbs ups. "Yes, Muslim," he nodded, smiling nervously, before they let us pass.

A couple of hundred metres down the road a truck full of soldiers was hurtling towards the mob. It was now more than 16 hours since the packs of young Muslim men had begun their rampage against the minority Chinese Christians and Buddhists in the rice farming district on the outskirts of Jakarta.

Already nearly 80 shops, two churches, a Buddhist temple and more than 70 homes identified with the Chinese minority in the nearby town of Rengasdenklok had been burnt to the ground, or torn apart.

The Chinese were gone, unable to defend their properties. The streets lay littered with piles of burning loot as riot police, machineguns and teargas grenade-launchers across their chests, chased the youths out of the town, yelling at huddled family groups to get back inside their houses and lock themselves in.

It was the third time in less than six months that Indonesia had been rocked by serious religious riots which have killed 14 people, injured scores and caused massive property damage.

For both the people and the Suharto Government the anarchy of Rengasdenklok represents a deeply disturbing social rift which pits the majority Muslim population against the largely Christian Chinese minority.

For nearly three decades - since the massacre of perhaps 600,000 communists and Chinese in the communal riots of 1965 - religion, race and ethnicity has remained a political taboo.

Any mob violence along these sensitive social dividing lines terrifies those who witnessed the horrors of 1965, which preceded President Suharto's rise to power.

At the same time, the recent riots appear to fit into a escalating pattern of civil unrest across the country.

This week alone two unrelated riots broke out ahead of the razing of Rengasdenklok - one on the central island of Kalimantan where a mob burnt down a Catholic high school and another in the busiest market district of Jakarta where vendors burnt down the local government offices.

Each riot has been sparked by a local dispute, but in all cases thousands of people have resorted to mob violence in an attempt to solve their problems.

What that means, say many observers, is that the Soeharto Government has lost thepeople's trust. And, as such, people are taking justice into their own hands.

Conspiracy theorists believe the trend is even more sinister.

Some say that the volatile lower classes are being manipulated in the behind-the-scenes political power struggle ahead of the May national elections and the eventual retirement or death of Mr Soeharto, who has lead Indonesia for more than 30 years.

And in the shadows lie, perhaps, the powerful armed forces, seeking justification for an even more prominent role in politics in the name of social order.

Or, perhaps, the spectre of Islam is being raised to bolster the competing interests of the the political elite who are seeking to succeed Mr Soeharto and need to woo the sizable Muslim majority. The leaders of the armed forces talk constantly of a so-called third force, no doubt referring to Indonesia's underground pro-democracy political opposition.

The riot in Rengasdengklok began in the early hours of Thursday.

As is usual during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan the local children were out at 2.30am banging on tins to wake up the town, calling for residents to get ready for breakfast, which must be finished before sunrise.

Residents say a middle-aged Chinese woman began yelling at them to be quiet - the Chinese are not Muslims and so do not observe the fasting month in which neither food, drink nor cigarettes can be taken during daylight.

The children were angry and came back with older friends who began attacking the Chinese woman's house.

Within minutes it was burning and the rampage began, at its peak thousands of Muslim youths venting their frustration on the Chinese minority. The local Muslim families hurriedly painted defensive slogans across their front doors - "True Muslims Fight, the Chinese are disbelievers".

"The Chinese own 90 per cent of the shops, they are arrogant towards us," said one Muslim shopkeeper as he peered out from behind metal shutters.

Of the rioters, he said: "They are mainly young men, they feel disappointed with development, they are still rural labourers, the harvest has not been very good and they are still poor.

"When one of them starts then the others get up their courage and follow. This is a problem of social jealously, the Government should do something to bring the poorer people up."

The structural imbalance the shopkeeper is referring to exists right across Indonesia. Although only 3 per cent of the population is ethnic Chinese it is the Indonesian Chinese who control much of the national economy.

During the Dutch colonial era the indigenous Indonesians were banned from conducting any business, allowing the Chinese minority to take over the shops and markets in nearly every town, and leaving the indigenous people to toil in the plantations.

At a national level, a handful of super-rich Chinese entrepreneurs still control key sectors of the economy and have forged close economic ties to Mr Soeharto and the ruling political elite.

Beyond the ethnic divide lies the religious split, the rich Chinese primarily Christian or Buddhist, the poorer Indonesians Muslim.

Rengasdenklok lies on the fringe of the industrial and urban sprawl of Jakarta, within reach of the glitzy new shopping malls, the traffic jams of shiny new cars, and the "American dream" satellite suburbs of three-bedroom brick veneer cottages.

Rapid economic growth is transforming Indonesia, but the benefits have not yet trickled down.

In Rengasdenklok the young men still work in the rice paddies, their income is modest, their houses made simply of panels of leaking thatch, their yards patches of damp earth strewn with rubbish and scratching chickens.

Around Rengasdengklok, says a group of minibus drivers, the Chinese and Mr Soeharto own ponds teeming with valuable giant prawns.

The vehicles are owned by Chinese and they say they have been asked by the police not to drive today. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant. The common perception remains that both the Chinese and the ruling political elite are fabulously rich.

The issue of the so-called "social gap" exploded last July during two days of political riots sparked by the ousting of the pro-democracy opposition leader, Ms Megawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of the former President Sukarno.

In the approaching May elections Ms Megawati has been banned from standing, leaving voters with no real alternative candidates within a tightly controlled political system in which President Suharto cannot be voted out of office.

"Political parties are unable to voice the people's aspirations and social organisations are not functioning as expected," said the political scientist Mr Syamsu Suryadi. "If political channels are clogged, people will vent their anger on anything, anywhere."

However, the Minister for Development, Dr Ginandgar Kartasasmita, countered that excessive discussion of the social gap, would only heighten social tensions.

The Army chief, General Fesial Tanjung, called on the people to have "pure patience" so that they can accept any disadvantages of development, apparently referring to the gap between the rich and poor.

The Soeharto Government recently announced the establishment of nationwide riot alert centres in an attempt to monitor potentially explosive social tensions, but has made no major policy adjustments to deal with economic disparity.

The influential Muslim scholar Mr Amien Rais has warned: "I stick to my earlier opinion that unrest stems from social frustration affecting people at the lower levels of society. They are so deprived socially and economically that they become like a piece of dry wood, easily set alight."

Mr Rais said the Soeharto Government must exert greater effort to narrow the "social gap", echoing growing criticism of the spectacular wealth of the ruling elite, including the vast business holdings of President Soeharto's children.

The leader of the 30 million-strong Nahdlatul Ulama Islamic organisation, Mr Gus Dur, said there had been a fourfold increase in the number of mosques in Jakarta alone over the past 20 years and that more and more people were using religion as a way of being heard.

He said it was understandable, in the face of the rapid social change brought about through industrialisation, that people were seeking refuge in their own ethnic group or religion. Mr Dur said many of the complaints about the economy and the lack of accountability of the government departments were being brought to the mosques.

However, Mr Dur cautioned against the manipulation of religion for political goals.

"If the efforts to mix politics and religion prevail, this nation's religious life will suffer and manipulation of religion for politics will occur and, eventually, the nation will burn," he said.