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Riots 'manipulated by elite groups'

South China Morning Post - November 24, 1998

Jenny Grant, Jakarta – Sunday's riots may have been engineered by elite groups to divert attention away from political issues that threaten the Government, analysts said yesterday. They could also be the beginning of a new season of unrest in the tense Indonesian capital.

What began as a local conflict over a gambling hall later erupted into religious and anti Chinese attacks which led to the burning of seven churches and the deaths of 13 people.

Professor Dawam Rahardjo, chairman of the National Mandate Party, said elite groups had manipulated the conflict to divert attention away from student demands. Those issues include a tough investigation into former president Suharto's wealth and calls for President Bacharuddin Habibie's Government to bow to democratic demands.

The unrest was one way of preventing the students from making further demonstrations. It was a threat that if the students did not stop protesting, it would develop into riots, said Professor Rahardjo.

He said groups wanting to create instability used religion for political purposes at crucial times. "They always use religion because it burns easily into mass riots," he said.

Professor Rahardjo said elite figures from the armed forces were trying to create social disturbances to quell the student demonstrations. The students have proved politically effective and have won public sympathy. Mr Habibie bowed to their demands at the weekend and announced a commission of inquiry into corruption allegations against Mr Suharto.

Criminologist Mulyanah Kusumah said disinformation had fanned church attacks by mobs of young male Muslims. A rumour that two mosques had been burnt and a Muslim preacher murdered spread across North Jakarta on Sunday afternoon. "It is not a deeply rooted inter-religious conflict. It is a horizontal conflict by groups who are exploited by external parties to benefit from this conflict," said Mr Kusumah.

The head of the 35 million-strong Nahdlatul Ulama, Abdurrahman Wahid, and opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri agreed. It was not spontaneous but maturely arranged by hoodlums who bowed to one person, said Mr Wahid, declining to name the mastermind.

Despite the conspiracy theories many believe the riots had no connection to last week's clashes.