Indonesians loot Chinese stores as economy worsens

JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) --Angry mobs looted Chinese-owned stores and homes in Indonesia Saturday, one day after at least three men were killed in food riots that have grown increasingly violent as the nation tries to cope with the worst economic crisis in decades.

The rioters blame Chinese traders for the rising prices that came with mass unemployment after the plunge in value of the currency, the rupiah. They dumped groceries, cookware and clothing into the streets despite police and army patrols.

The three men were killed Friday, when hundreds of shops and houses in about a dozen locations were wrecked and burned by roving mobs.

Two of the victims were shot by soldiers in the Brebes district, about 125 miles east of the capital, Jakarta, and a third was trampled to death by a rampaging crowd of more than 3,000 people in Losari, near Brebes.

Maj. Gen. Mardiyanto, the military chief for central Java, said the two men shot by the soldiers had threatened them with steel bars, the official Antara news agency quoted him as saying.

Police said 154 people were being held for questioning on suspicion of looting and rioting in Pamanukan on the heavily populated island of Java, where dozens of buildings including shops, places of worship and doctors' offices were set on fire or damaged.

Saturday's violence more sporatic
In Patok Besi, a village about 50 miles east of Jakarta, more than 200 looters ransacked a Chinese store. Some ran away with stolen goods. Others dumped wares -- the general stores sell everything from crockery to soap -- into the street as onlookers cheered and laughed.

Police directed traffic nearby but did nothing to intervene.

"The Chinese have put up the prices of everything way too quickly," one looter said.

In other towns, crowds picked through wreckage and stole merchandise from shops abandoned by their frightened owners.

"All these economic problems are fault of the Chinese," a man in Pamanukan said.

"The Chinese keep raising prices," said another. "We want the government to lower prices."

Storekeeper surveys damage and cries
One Chinese storekeeper wept in Patok Besi as he surveyed the damage to his store, now a blackened, empty shell. Smoke rose from several other shops.

Ethnic Chinese make up about 4 percent of Indonesia's population of 202 million, which is about 90 percent Muslim.

A fraction of Chinese are among Indonesia's richest people. However, small-town merchants complain that they're being made scapegoats for economic troubles.

"It's simple," said Ong Hak Ham, a retired ethnic Chinese history professor. "People get angry. They are frustrated because they don't have food in their stomachs. They need a channel for their anger, so they attack the Chinese in their town."

The outburst of violence was long feared. Security forces have been on alert since the rupiah collapsed in July. Millions of people have lost their jobs, and surging inflation has been particularly hard on the poor.

Rioting flared on the eastern side of Java about a month ago and has moved west toward Jakarta as pain from the economic crisis deepens.

Sweeping economic reforms and austerity measures under a $40 billion International Monetary Fund bailout agreed to in January have added to the tension.

On Saturday, Indonesia's central bank chief said the IMF was more willing to be flexible with its economic rescue plans, which also have extended to Thailand and South Korea.

In Washington on Friday, IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus defended his agency's methods. He said they were meant to restore market confidence by dealing with problems specific to each nation.

But Camdessus voiced doubts about a proposal being considered by Indonesia to tie its currency to the U.S. dollar as a way of stabilizing chaotic currency markets.

Jakarta Bureau Chief Maria Ressa, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.