Louise Williams, Jakarta – Police fired rubber bullets into a rioting Muslim mob ahead of an appearance by President Soeharto's daughter Mrs Siti "Tutut" Hardiyanti Rukmana at a pro-Government election rally in central Java on Wednesday night.
Witnesses in the coastal town of Pekalongan said the mob burned down the stage where Mrs Rukmana was due to appear with a popular local singer who had recently switched allegiances from the Muslim-oriented United Development Party (PPP) to the ruling Golkar group of President Soeharto.
The mob then torched homes and shops belonging the town's ethnic Chinese, in line with earlier riots which saw Muslim crowds vent their frustration on the local Chinese, who are mostly Christians and hold a dominant position in the economy.
The witnesses, contacted by telephone, said scores of people were injured by rubber bullets but there were no deaths. They said shops in Pekalongan, about 300 kilometres east of Jakarta, remained barricaded yesterday.
The Soeharto Government has announced it will take serious action against rioters, and the Pekalongan disturbance is the first time in the recent unrest that rubber bullets have been used. Crowds were previously controlled using batons and only the threat of force.
The speech by Mrs Rukmana went ahead at another site in the town and was broadcast nationally on Wednesday night with no reference to the unrest. The speech was to mark the 31st anniversary of the relinquishing of power by President Sukarno to the then General Soeharto.
Golkar has recruited many popular singers and actors as candidates to boost its image ahead of May's national elections, in the face of growing popular unrest and criticism of corruption and lack of accountability in the Soeharto Government.
The PPP is one of only two small, alternative parties permitted to stand for the 425 parliamentary seats chosen by ballot. The remaining 575 seats are appointed by the Government, meaning the alternative parties have little real power.
However, large numbers of Muslims have been attracted to the PPP as an avenue for venting their frustration over the gap between the rich and poor and development policies which frequently force peasants and slum dwellers off their land.
Supporters of the PPP in Pekalongan said tensions were building from earlier in the day when supporters of Golkar began removing flags belonging to the PPP.
The PPP has complained that it is unable to effectively campaign and in Pekalongan its supporters said there were not enough of them to put their flags back up.
Witnesses said a mob then torched the stage to prevent the Golkar rally going ahead. However, a second venue had been set up and the rally was relocated when Mrs Rukmana arrived.
In recent months Indonesia has been rocked by a series of Muslim riots targeting Chinese shops and homes.
The riots, however, do not mark the rise of Islamic fundamentalism but represent growing frustration among the poor.