Achmad Sukarsono, Jakarta – About 1,000 Indonesian Muslim students rallied outside parliament on Wednesday, with some trying to knock down the gates leading into the complex in the biggest anti-American protest in Jakarta this week.
Students danced around a burning effigy of US President George W. Bush and shouted slogans as several hundred earlier tried to breach the parliament gates under the watchful eyes of scores of riot police stationed just inside the compound.
Adding to jitters, a package of fireworks exploded on a road a few blocks from the British embassy in central Jakarta, although the blast was small and caused no damage, police said. They declined to speculate on whether the blast was linked to protests over US and British air strikes on Afghanistan.
The official Antara news agency said police arrested six students when they tried to burn an American flag outside the US embassy during a separate, minor rally. Witnesses said police, underscoring their willingness to use force, also hit several protesters with batons near the US embassy.
Unhappy at Jakarta's tacit acceptance of the US-led attacks on Afghanistan, the students had marched to parliament to urge MPs take a harsh stance over the military action. "America-America the terrorist!" students shouted. "America said they will only attack the Taliban and Osama. That's a lie. America is there to destroy Islam," one student shouted from atop a pick-up truck parked near the gates. By late afternoon, all had dispersed peacefully. Washington launched the strikes on Sunday after suicide hijack attacks on America last month that killed about 5,600 people. It says Osama bin Laden, a Saudi-born militant sheltered by the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan, masterminded those attacks.
Protests yet to cause major alarm
Before lunch, many of the same students outside parliament burned American flags and an effigy of Bush near the UN office in central Jakarta, not far from the US embassy which is surrounded by razor wire barricades and hundreds of police.
But analysts have noted that while the demonstrations in recent days have been noisy, they have been relatively small compared to some protests in volatile Indonesia in the past few years, partly easing fears in Jakarta of widespread violence.
Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country, with about 90 percent of its 210 million people followers of Islam. The security forces have also shown they will not tolerate any violence, firing warning shots and tear gas at about 400 Muslim protesters outside the US embassy on Tuesday when they shook razor barricades blocking the front of that compound. There were no protests reported in other Indonesian cities.
Reflecting the moderate views of most Indonesian Muslims, a poll of 3,000 people by local broadcaster MetroTV showed 80 percent believed the street protests were already excessive. Many, however, oppose the air strikes.
Indonesia has urged the United States and its allies to limit its military campaign against Afghanistan but stopped well short of openly criticising the strikes, a position that has angered radical Muslim groups. The US embassy was closed on Wednesday but the British embassy reopened.
The English-language Jakarta Post urged the government to convey a clearer message on the strikes. "At this critical time the Indonesian nation was hoping to see firm and cohesive national leadership," the newspaper said in an editorial. "The current perception is that both President Megawati [Sukarnoputri] and Vice-President Hamzah Haz are not sufficiently displaying a sense of urgency."
Megawati has adopted her familiar silence by saying nothing publicly on the strikes on Afghanistan, nor the delicate position they have put the government in. The United States is a vital trade and investment partner for a country battered by four years of crisis and desperate for fresh inflows of foreign funds.