Wed, 15 Jan 2003

Rowdy protests against price hikes get meaner

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Nationwide protests against increases in utility prices entered their second week on Tuesday, turning more militant in some provinces as protesters blocked roads and occupied government offices.

Security concerns due to ongoing demonstrations in Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi, reportedly forced President Megawati Soekarnoputri to cancel her planned visit to the province.

More than 1,000 demonstrators in Palu turned out to join protests against the hikes in fuel, electricity and telephone rates. Some burned pictures of Megawati and Vice President Hamzah Haz and called for their resignation, reported.

In Jakarta, several hundred workers tore down the front gates of the House of Representatives, as they demanded lawmakers to force the government to cancel the utility price hikes.

The gates were knocked down a second time by another group of protesters later in the day, but neither groups were able to enter the House's sprawling compound as security was tight inside.

In Semarang, Central Java, more than 200 university students occupied the provincial administration offices while students in the South Sulawesi capital of Makassar blocked roads and caused traffic jams for several hours.

In Riau, students took over state-owned radio station RRI and broadcast their anti-price hike message. They also tried but failed to break down the gates of local telephone operator PT Telkom, Antara reported.

Hundreds of housewives wearing veils were seen joining the protests in Jakarta. Some carried cooking utensils as they gathered before Merdeka Palace to demand that Megawati revoke the price increases.

"What we're facing is the consequences of a government that does not care about the public's interests, facilitates dirty economic practices, and does not have a transparent political system," said Suara Hati Ibu, a women's activist organization.

Tuesday's protests were neither the biggest nor the most violent, but demonstrators have taken more drastic measures to pressure the government.

The protests come on the heels of the demonstrations that were held almost daily last week, but without any results. The government refused to cancel or negotiate the triple price hikes, offering instead cosmetic solutions, such as tax incentives and a speedier disbursement of aid to the poor.

Megawati, in her first public response to the protests last week, said that the decision to raise the prices was painful.

Speaking before supporters of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) in Bali, she called on the public to understand that the decision would help the nation in the long run.

Except for the telephone rates, analysts have agreed that slashing the subsidies on fuel and electricity were correct.

However, they added, the move came at a time when public confidence in Megawati was running low. The government pushed ahead with sales of state companies in defiance of labor protests, and recently agreed to drop possible criminal charges against business tycoons who owe the state billions of U.S. dollars.

Legislators have also voiced concern over these policies, even though they had agreed to them earlier. A petition is circulating among them, demanding the cancellation of the utility price increases.

The chairman of the University of Indonesia's student body, Rico Marbun, said students planned another rally on Wednesday, estimating that thousands would turn out for it.

He said they would repeat their demands for the government to drop the price hikes and arrest corrupt business tycoons.