Quick evacuations prepared by expats as tension mounts

JAKARTA: When the newsletter came home last week from one of Jakarta's international schools, the sport and drama club news was relegated to the back. The front-page message was about the school's emergency communications system and the stress of living in Indonesia right now.

One parent says his eight-year-old son came home from school recently and asked him: "Dad, have we got tickets to leave?"

"I was surprised that the children are so aware," said the father, an Australian who asked not to be named. "Yes, we are concerned. There is so much uncertainty about the situation that we don't know what is going to happen, so we are taking all precautions we can possibly afford."

Outside the family's home in south Jakarta sit two ex-military guards. His wife's company has garaged their Mercedes and issued them with a Toyota Corolla instead, to avoid offending poor Indonesians now struggling to purchase even basic food.

In the city's most affluent suburbs, new guard posts are being constructed and rolls of barbed wire added to the high walls hiding the Western-style homes of the elite. At a major shopping centre in the city, owned by a daughter of President Soeharto and a potential target of social envy, an empty glass shop front announced "Welcome to the Marines". On each corner, troops armed with machine-guns protect the boutiques from the tens of thousands of "new poor" walking the city streets.

According to Indonesia's Ministry of Manpower only 16,000 expatriate workers remained in Indonesia at the beginning of March, down from 48,000 in December and 60,000 in mid-1997, when the Asian economic crisis started in Thailand. Before the crisis these expats included between 7,000 and 10,000 Australians, plus dependants. The Australian Embassy says it is difficult to say how many are left because people do not report their departure.

For most of the remaining expatriates the uncertainty is primarily economic. Many of their own jobs are on the line in the rapidly declining Indonesian economy.

Beyond that is the fear of social unrest as prices rise and unemployment balloons, and resentment focusing on the rich, including expatriates paid in dollars, now three or four times more valuable in rupiah terms because of the sharp devaluation.

Following food riots in at least 25 towns in January and February the Australian Embassy issued a travel bulletin to Australian citizens warning against the use of public transport outside Jakarta and Bali and stating that "the potential for further occurrences exists".

At business lunches huddles of managers pass around rumours of attacks on foreigners: robberies, the stoning of cars, shouts of resentment. The Australian Embassy says there is no evidence that foreigners are being targeted, but much of the stress of the present uncertainty comes from not having any real information.

The Indonesian press, restricted by Government licencing requirements, published not a single picture of the recent food riots. News then travels on the unreliable rumour mill. One Jakarta counselling service for the expatriate community recently issued a newsletter on how to stay calm, and deal with alarming rumours.

FOR AUSTRALIANS in Indonesia, the embassy has opened phone, fax and e-mail connections to update security information. Scores of private companies have established civil emergency programs for staff and families should there be a breakdown in order in Jakarta and other major centres.

"We are following the situation very closely," said Sandy Meads, who moved to Jakarta from Brisbane with her husband and two daughters in 1996. "For the first time ever I am monitoring the value of the rupiah against the US dollar daily, because a big fluctuation could indicate a trigger like a riot or a demonstration."

Like many of their friends, the family is holding first-class tickets out of the country. All the families they know are taking their children out of Indonesia during April, when, if IMF conditions are applied, the highly sensitive fuel subsidy is due to be lifted, a move which will further increase prices.

The expat lifestyle is also becoming a touch less comfortable. The supermarket shelves are empty and imported food or pharmaceuticals hard to find. "I have to go to three supermarkets to find what I want now," said Katherine Palmer, an Australian resident here. "In one, chicken might be sold out; in another, there might not be any cheese or fruits."

A shopping trolley half full of groceries can now cost 1 million rupiah, more than most Indonesians earn in two months. Only those with access to dollars can still afford to shop.

Restaurants, which once catered for the large foreign community and the new middle class, are deserted. At a fancy European restaurant in downtown Jakarta last week the manager sadly farewelled his customers. "Business is terrible," he said, looking around at the empty tables laid with fine china. "The hotels are only 15 per cent full, there are only journalists and moving companies doing well. I will be leaving for France next week."

MOST Australians and expats are planning what they would do if hyper-inflation leads to a breakdown of order.

"I am not a nervous wreck, but I have discussed with my company what I should do in case of a problem and taken precautions like having some cash available," said Ms Palmer. "I'm the only foreigner in my street and there have been riots nearby in the past, so I have explored alternative ways out of my house, like over the roof."

Many multinational companies have given instructions to resident staff: stockpile food, medical supplies and even drinking water, training drivers to avoid demonstrations, fit cars and homes with fire extinguishers, set up "phone trees" (contact networks), carry mobile phones, keep cash and airline tickets in safes at home. Some companies have block booked rooms in hotels and chosen meeting points in case of riots or demonstrations.

Security plans are confidential because companies - as well as the Australian Embassy - are treading the fine line between making adequate preparations and creating unnecessary panic and fear. Privately, though, plans are widely compared at dinner parties. "I have no idea if this planning will actually be tested, but you have to be aware of the situation," said the parent of the anxious eight-year-old.

At the British International School, Jill McLean said about 10 per cent of students will have left by the end of term, suggesting single expatriates have been the first to lose their jobs to avoid uprooting families.

"At the moment everything is fairly quiet and we are living life as normal," she said. "But there is an air of uncertainty for people as to whether they will be here for much longer, and when people are uncertain as to what they are doing, that can make life more difficult."

All foreign schools now have emergency communications systems, stockpiles of food, water and bedding, and two-way radios on school buses in case they have to be called back to avoid demonstrations. The system was tested last year during the May election riots when children were held at school for hours at a time, and buses were called back off the roads.

"Basically, with all this stuff happening it is hard to concentrate, your parents stress, so you stress," said Samantha, a 16-year-old Australian student. "People keep talking about how they might be moving; a lot of people have left."

But the crisis had also widened the world view of many of her peers. "You are aware that people around you are suffering - you can see it every day," she said. "In the past you could see poverty, but now it is a lot worse, there are so many more people on the streets, more beggars, you can tell people are losing out."

Samantha's own year recently organised a "bake sale" to raise money to assist children in the north Jakarta slums. "I never thought of anything like this, politics or economics, in Australia," she said.

For those who are staying, several removal companies are offering a solution.

"Feeling edgy?" says one ad in an English-language paper, offering to store valuable household items in air-conditioned, secure warehouses, until the crisis passes.