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Accusations fly of masterminded riots

Asiaweek - June 23, 1998

Jose Manuel Tesoro, Jakarta – The wealthy Chinese residential neighborhood of Pluit Timur emerged mostly unscathed from the May 13-15 Jakarta riots. Its residents want to keep it that way. On June 16, workers were binding long sticks of wood with barbed wire to form barricades. Across the eastern end of Pluit Timur's widest street, residents erected a wall of wire-ringed oil drums stacked almost two meters high. Behind the barricades and iron gates that now enclose the area sit stout Chinese youths and army soldiers on a more-or-less 24-hour watch. "Actually, it is safe," says one soldier, smiling behind strands of barbed wire. "We're just guarding."

A month after mobs looted and burned large parts of Jakarta, the capital remains naggingly ill at ease. There are fears that the unrest is far from over. And there are sinister intimations that the previous disturbances were far from spontaneous. These worries were voiced publicly as high up as President B. J. Habibie, who told a gathering of high-ranking armed forces officers June 11 that they should "uncover the truth of suspicions that organized groups were seen provoking the masses to burn and loot." The day before, opposition leader Amien Rais said that he believed "there were people who masterminded the riots in Jakarta."

Proving such suspicions is another matter. A 120-member team of volunteers is investigating dubious patterns in the May rioting. In a June 7 report, it summarizes eyewitness accounts of instigated rioting. For example, witnesses say they saw dozens of youths wearing high-school uniforms disembark from a truck near the Yogya Plaza department store in East Jakarta. Four men in black jackets were also seen in the group. Soon after the store was set alight, the youths left. Scores died in the fire. In other areas, people were seen egging on crowds to loot and burn.

But most evidence is so far circumstantial. "We confess that it is very difficult to find proof," says Father Sandyawan Sumardi, secretary of the Volunteer Team for Humanity. To him, Indonesian society is shaped like a mountain, with its peak obscured by clouds and darkness. Those at the bottom see only the consequences of what goes on at the summit. The victims and witnesses he and his team speak to can thus provide only half the story. "The others, up there, are not our field," he says. "They are untouchable."

He says the May riots followed patterns observed in the past. Among them: labor-related riots in Medan, North Sumatra, in April 1994 for which independent labor leader Muchtar Pakpahan was implicated and later jailed. Instigation and provocation has always been a tool, says Sandyawan, in inter-elite conflict, mostly within the military. But the victims are the same – the urban poor and minorities. The technique dates back to the colonial era, when European overlords allowed or even encouraged Chinese massacres to control and divide populations. The nation has not completely relinquished that brutal legacy. "Violence is still legitimate," says historian Onghokham.

Chaos is an especially dangerous weapon. It also hurts those who grasp it. One can only speculate at the aim of a mastermind, if there is one. Is it to level the economic differences between ethnic Chinese Indonesians and others? To create chaos as a pretext to enforce stability? No one has established any clear links between the May disturbances and powerful figures, inside or outside the military. "It has never been armed forces' strategy to politically engineer a situation at the expense of peace and people's welfare," says military chief Gen. Wiranto. He has ordered an investigation of the riots.

Meantime, some are profiting from the anxiety. Chinese businessmen and residents have reportedly paid as much as 80 million rupiah ($5,500) for troops to protect their buildings and neighborhoods. In recent days, rumors multiplied that bused-in mobs would attack well-off Chinese areas in a "second wave" of riots.