Thousands Riot in Indonesian Town
January 8, 1999


Irwan Firdaus

KARAWANG, Indonesia (AP) - Thousands of people rampaged through an Indonesian town today, hurling stones at police stations and looting shops. Police fired plastic bullets at the mobs, killing at least one person and injuring nine.

Rioters in Karawang, on the main island of Java, banged drums, burned a motorcycle, taunted security forces and threw bricks. They smashed the windows of a bank, a hotel, two Protestant churches and attacked the home of an ethnic Chinese businessman.

``This is because of the government,'' one man said, reflecting the deep public mistrust of the state that has emerged in the past year.

But much of the violence lacked any political motive, with looters cheering and grabbing shoes, candles and umbrellas from stores.

Dozens of rioters were arrested, including one soldier dressed in civilian clothing, said police chief Col. Ahmad Hidayat. He did not say why the soldier was involved.

Civil unrest plagued the Southeast Asian nation of 210 million last year and shows no signs of abating.

In May, deadly riots and student protests helped oust President Suharto after 32 years of iron-handed rule, and authorities fear an escalation of violence ahead of national elections in June.

Riots broke out early today in Karawang, 40 miles east of the capital, Jakarta, after rumors spread that police had mistreated motorcycle drivers who ferry passengers for a living.

Mobs broke down the door of a department store and looted goods, Hidayat told the private Sonora radio news station.

The crowd swelled and attacked the police headquarters and other posts, forcing police to fire.

A 19-year-old high school student was shot and killed, said Rosid, a medic in the emergency room at the main town hospital. Nine people were wounded by gunfire and mobs beat two others.

The city center was quiet by late afternoon, but police fired warning shots and chased small bands of rioters after dark. Officers patrolled with megaphones, urging people to stay in their homes.

Witnesses said looters did not single out shops owned by ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs. However, some rioters threw stones at a house owned by a Chinese businessman.

Much of the violence in Indonesia has been directed at the Chinese minority, which is resented partly because of its relative wealth. Many Chinese in predominately Muslim Indonesia are Christian or Buddhist.

Indonesia's persistent riots have been linked to economic hardship, ethnic and religious tensions and political turmoil. Many people also are suspicious of the armed forces, which have acknowledged human rights abuses during the Suharto era.

President B.J. Habibie, Suharto's successor, is implementing political reforms but student activists say his measures fall far short of real democracy. One of their key complaints is that the military retains a prominent role in politics.