Fri, 10 Jan 2003

Protesters urge nationwide boycott of tax, utility payments

The Jakarta Post Jakarta

Calls for a national boycott on taxes and utility bills, and for the resignations of President Megawati Soekarnoputri and her deputy Hamzah Haz, mounted across the archipelago on Thursday as nationwide protests heated up against fuel, electricity and telephone price hikes.

Most street demonstrations in the majority of provinces proceeded peacefully. A minor clash broke out in Jakarta, while two protesters sustained shot wounds in a scuffle with police in the West Java town of Karawang.

Around 400 businesspeople, joined by leaders of various labor unions and student groups, held rallies in the country's second largest city of Surabaya, threatening to not pay taxes in protest against the price rises.

The threat was made publicly by the head of the East Java Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin), Erlangga Satriagung, who led the group of protesting businesspeople.

"Businessmen have made maximum efforts to improve efficiency and reduce profit margins. If we continue to be suffocated, we will also be forced into massive lay-offs," he said.

Echoing Kadin's threat was chairman of the province's Indonesian Employers Association (Apindo) Wiem Pattirajawane, who said association members would boycott tax payments and mobilize huge demonstrations should the central government refuse to reverse the increases.

"We will all go to the President to lodge a protest," he shouted during the rally at the East Java legislative council.

Similarly, thousands of students in the South Sulawesi capital of Makassar urged the people not to pay electricity and telephone bills until their demands were heeded.

"Boycotts are the only way to oppose a government that has turned deaf and no longer cares for the people's concerns," said M. Arief, a protest leader from Indonesian Muhammadiyah University (UMI).

During the peaceful rally, the protesters again head briefly a fuel truck belonging to state-owned oil company Pertamina.

Around 7,000 other protesters, mostly students, marched to several strategic places in Medan, North Sumatra, demanding that the price hikes be annulled, or for Megawati and Hamzah Haz to resign.

The Indonesian Prosperity Trade Union (SBSI), one of the groups involved in the protests, also urged the government to cancel its Release and Discharge policy exonerating big debtors of legal charges, and its decision to sell state-owned telecommunications firm PT Indosat.

A call for the two national leaders to step down was also raised by protesters in the West Java city of Cirebon, the province of Yogyakarta, Padang in West Sumatra, Palu in Central Sulawesi and several other cities, who accused Megawati and Hamzah of failing to run the country and to show concern for the people.

In the West Java capital of Bandung, hundreds of demonstrators distributed thousands of leaflets urging the nation to shun tax and utility bill payments.

Street rallies were also reported in Aceh, Manado in North Sulawesi, Purwokerto in Central Java, and other cities and towns on the islands of Java, Bali and Sumatra.

Most of these nationwide protests, now in their fourth consecutive day on Thursday, were smaller than the 25,000 predicted by a coalition of workers, students and politicians.

Rally organizers, however, threatened to stage more demonstrations in upcoming days until their demands were heard.

The protests began on Monday, but the government has refused to undo the price increases, which range from 6 percent for electricity to 22 percent for fuel.

The government has said it planned to spend Rp 4 trillion (US$450 million) to compensate the poor for the increased prices through seven sectors, including education and health. Officials have also said they were considering tax cuts aimed at helping businesses that might be hurt by the price hikes.

Among the proposals is a plan to reduce the luxury tax on as many as 20 items.