Tue, 28 Jan 2003

Thugs attack striking drivers, students

Apriadi Gunawan, The Jakarta Post, Medan, North Sumatra

A group of unidentified people attacked bus drivers and students here on Monday hours before they went ahead with a planned strike to protest the recent rise in fuel prices and electricity rates.

The attack took place at about 2:30 a.m., shortly after the victims had distributed leaflets at bus stations announcing the strike.

At least eight bus drivers and four students were injured in the violence.

Two of the drivers -- Arifin Sembiring and Morisi Situmorang -- sustained serious head injuries and are being treated in the intensive care unit at Pirngadi Hospital.

The protesters had received threats on Saturday night after they announced plans to stage a massive strike on Monday.

Nasrun, one of the attacked drivers, said the victims believed the attackers were supervisors from rival bus operators.

He said a group of unidentified people stopped the victims as they were returning to the headquarters of their public transportation owners association (Kesper-AU), led by Victor Nainggolan.

"After being held for about 90 minutes in the street by their accomplices, several other people arrived and beat us. We could not identify them all," Nasrun told The Jakarta Post.

The assailants reportedly called the drivers and students "provocateurs" for distributing leaflets calling for a strike.

Authorities believe the attack could be linked to an internal conflict within Kesper-AU, which in 1998 split into two factions -- one led by Victor Nainggolan and the other by Manahan Hutagulung.

Despite the attack, thousands of drivers pushed ahead with the strike on Monday. No violence was reported during the protest, which also involved hundreds of students from various universities in the province.

The protesters condemned the "repressive action" by the group of attackers who tried to prevent the strike.

There were no reports of commuters being stranded by the strike, as thousands of other drivers from the Manahan-led Kesper-AU went about their work as usual.

O.K. Chaidir, who chairs the Medan branch of the land transportation owners' organization, said the strike was "political motivated" because it involved students.

"Based on our monitoring, strikes took place in at least 20 spots with protesters stopping buses to join in," he said.

Victor Nainggolan said the strike was organized because bus drivers were looked on as mere "cash cows".

"The increases in fuel prices and electricity rates, the hike in the price of spare parts and rampant extortion have caused drivers further suffering.

"Tragically, the government and other agencies do not try to resolve the problems, but even add more burdens on the drivers by deploying more buses and issuing new operational licenses," he said.

A statement issued by the strikers said bus earned about Rp 8 million per day just from a Rp 1,000 fee charged to about 8,000 drivers every day.

Victor said the strike would continue until Wednesday, which local police said could place a burden on commuters.