Jakarta – Indonesia's armed forces are readying to step in to protect the country's businesses from looters and thieves as reports mount of people driven to pillage through desperation.
"ABRI (the armed forces) will address security problems that disturb the government's efforts to improve the economy," the state-run Antara News Agency quoted armed forces Chief General Wiranto as saying.
Wiranto, who is also defence minister, was speaking after a coordinating meeting on security, financial and industrial affairs late Thursday. "Violations of the law, both those purely criminal or those instigated by intellectual actors (saboteurs with other motives)... will certainly be punished," Wiranto said, according to the Suara Karya daily. "The steps to be taken will be gradual, from warning shots to shots aimed at immobilising but not at killing," Wiranto said.
Criminal acts had intensified and the armed forces was needed to help fight them, Wiranto said, as reports reached Jakarta that systematic looting of scrap iron by thousands of people at the state-owned PT Krakatau Steel in Cilegon, West Java had gone unchecked for 10 straight days. Security guards said the swarms of looters daily ignored warning shorts, and Kompas daily quoted local police as saying they had not taken action as they considered them "scavengers of scrap."
Information Minister Yunus Yosfiah, speaking after the same meeting, told journalists Wiranto had promised to take "concrete security measures," and launch intelligence operations to probe the possibility of "intellectual actors" behind the lootings.
The minister was quoted by the Media Indonesia daily as saying that while most looting initially targetted essential foodstuffs, it now included other commodities. Yosfiah detailed reports of unauthorized felling of more than 27,000 valuable teak wood trees worth at least 866 million rupiah (69,280 dollars) in three separate places in East Java. He said Plantations and Forestry Minister Muslimin Nasution had already sought armed forces assistance because the looters seemed "no longer afraid of local authorities."
The ministers of agriculture and fisheries also reported looting of fish farms and crops, while Transmigration Minister Hendropriyono said settlers were receiving threats from the local populations in Irian Jaya and East Timor.
Indonesia's transmigration program, aimed at resettling poor farmers from overcrowded Java and Bali in the outer more sparsely-populated provinces, has in some areas roused resentment among the local inhabitants. Hendropriyono was quoted by Antara as saying the state must protect the property of the transmigrants in outlying areas.
Under the pressure of soaring prices and unemployment amid the severe economic crisis that hit Indonesia last year, the poor have also resorted to taking over idle plots of government and private land to grow food. Jakarta's governor Sutiyoso has given the city's poor the go-ahead to use idle government land to grow food, but urged them to get permission first instead of just grabbing it.
Throughout Indonesia in the past two months, security forces have been powerless to stop scores in incidents of people digging up golf courses and parks to plant vegetables, banana trees and fast-growing tubers. A showcase cattle ranch owned by ex-president Suharto on the hills overlooking Jakarta was invaded by some 300 villagers last month.
Flying police motocycle patrols set up in the Jakarta last month to prevent theft and looting as the economic crisis bites the poor, have failed to stop the land grabs.