Surging Violence, Crime Gives Indonesia the Look of Anarchy
January 17, 1999

The Washington Post

Keith B. Richburg

JAKARTA, Indonesia—Indonesia in recent weeks has been hit by a wave of violence and rising crime -- rioting, looting, attacks on police stations, clashes between rival villages, clashes between ethnic groups. The unrest is creating a growing impression that, eight months after the fall of President Suharto, no one is fully in control.

Each incident has a trigger -- a rumor, perhaps, a perceived slight or just pent-up frustration reaching the boiling point over the country's deepening poverty. Often it involves allegations of brutality by police, or crowds wanting to mete out summary justice to suspected thieves.

In one case last Tuesday, dozens of motorcycle taxi, or ojek, drivers mobbed an east Jakarta police station and set fires outside, demanding that the officers turn over a suspected thief. That same day in south Jakarta, an angry mob chased a man and beat him to death after he was suspected of killing an ojek driver in a botched motorcycle theft.

Whatever the reason, the widespread violence is giving the impression of a country teetering on the verge of chaos. In a country once run with a military iron fist, the collapse of the old regime has brought with it a breakdown in law and order.

The armed forces, once respected and feared, are now widely discredited by revelations of human rights abuses and seem incapable of containing the mounting unrest.

"It's the start of the breaking down of civil order," said Jusuf Wanandi, who heads the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Jakarta think tank. "It's the same as anarchy."

What many residents fear most is that the worst is still to come. Indonesia is entering a volatile election period that will culminate in the country's first democratic election in decades, and most here expect widespread violence when voters choose a parliament on June 7 and a president four months later.

Many of those with money are planning to leave town, and schools are accelerating their schedules to complete classes before the campaigning -- and the expected violence -- begins.

Campaigns here are typically bloody affairs. More than 1,000 people died in clashes and road accidents during the last parliamentary elections, in 1997, with only three officially sanctioned parties competing and campaign rallies restricted to specific days. But this year campaigning will be conducted without the usual strictures and for the first time in decades with a multitude of parties.

For many, the unrest is an unfortunate side effect of the unsteady lurch toward democracy. After years of repression, Indonesians are enjoying unprecedented freedoms including the freedom to march in the streets and vent their anger at ruling officials. And with that has come a wave of violence and a breakdown of the traditional patterns of authority.

B.J. Habibie, who ascended to the presidency when a wave of street protests and rioting forced Suharto to resign last May, referred to the escalating violence in his New Year's message.

"What is wrong with this nation?" Habibie asked in a nationally televised address on New Year's Eve. "Why have we suddenly become so intimate with violence? Ours is supposed to be a civilized nation with great respect for ethics and morals."

Many here say Habibie is part of the problem. His government, made up mostly of holdovers from the Suharto regime, is struggling to gain public credibility, and so far appears unable -- or unwilling -- to crack down on the unrest. The armed forces appear demoralized. And past incidents of orchestrated violence -- such as last May's riots, the gang rapes of ethnic Chinese women and grisly "Ninja" killings of 182 Muslim clerics and suspected "black magicians" in East Java -- have gone unsolved and unpunished, creating what many say is a culture of impunity that is fueling the current lawlessness.

Business consultant Arian Ardie, the U.S. liaison for the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce, agreed that the military's inaction, and the government's failure to solve outstanding cases of violence, may be partly to blame for the growing unrest. "Part of the reason . . . is the government's very slow response to investigating things," he said.

He said unresolved incidents, like the shootings of unarmed students at Trisakti University in May, and at Atma Jaya University last November, add to the climate of suspicion and mistrust and lead to popular resentment of the armed forces.

"The military is between the proverbial rock and a hard place on this," Ardie said. "If they don't do anything, it increases. If they come in too hard, they play right into the stereotype of a brutal military regime."

Many here say the problems may be exaggerated by a newly freed press. Ethnic violence, even rioting, has been common in outlying areas, but was rarely reported in the tightly controlled media.

Indonesia, with its explosive ethnic and religious mix, long has been a powder keg with periodic outbreaks of unrest -- and even the word "amok," many here point out, comes from the dominant Malay language.

But most agree that the violence is on the upswing, even if they differ over the causes.

"Every day you see a report of a new riot or disturbance in Indonesia," Ardie said. "Whenever there's a grievance now, burn and loot is the next thing that goes on."

A catalogue of recent incidents points up the severity of the problem:

In Sumatra's Lampung province, four suspected motorcycle thieves were beaten and lynched, prompting several days of rioting that left scores of cars burned and buildings looted.

In South Sulawesi, three people were killed and more than 80 homes burned in clashes between youths from two rival villages. And about 2,000 people in the area are still homeless after an earlier wave of rioting left three mosques burned -- retaliation, it appears, for violence in the capital in which rioters burned 22 churches and killed 14 Ambonese Christians.

Crime in Jakarta also has been on the upswing, changing the way residents go about their daily routines. Some said they avoid taking taxis and wait for relatives to give them rides; some, particularly women, say they only take taxis belonging to reputable companies. Others say they are more cautious about driving on the toll roads at night because of the fear of banditry.

A store was hit by a bomb in November. And gangs of hoodlums demanding extortion money from vendors forced hundreds of kiosks to close last Wednesday in Tanah Abang, a busy market area. Local newspapers said extortion gangs have made a comeback since a police crackdown two years ago.

With lawlessness worsening, Jakarta's governor, Sutiyoso, wrote to Habibie requesting 24-hour security patrols in some areas of the city. "The capital has become alarming on a day-to-day basis," Sutiyoso was quoted as telling local media executives.

Crime is just as bad in outlying cities and towns. Looters in Medan made off with iron supports from three electrical towers, causing the towers to collapse and leading to blackouts in large areas.

And thieves in Cilacap, in central Java, have looted telephone cables, traffic signs and poles from a railway line, disrupting communications there, officials reported. © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company