Wed, 08 Jan 2003

Violence erupts as street demonstrations heighten

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Street demonstrations against recent hikes in fuel, telephone and electricity charges became violent in several cities on the second day of protests Tuesday as thousands of demonstrators across the country mounted pressure on President Megawati Soekarnoputri to resign over the increases.

In the Central Sulawesi capital of Palu, a thousand protesters scuffled with police who tried to prevent them from lowering the national Red and White flag outside the governor's office in the city.

Several demonstrators, including students, workers, farmers and fishermen, as well as activists from non-governmental organizations, were injured after police officers beat them with sticks.

The clash stopped when Central Sulawesi Governor Aminuddin Ponulele came out of his office to appease the protesters.

Earlier, the protesters burned at least two pictures of President Megawati and several tires outside the governor's office and the local legislative council building.

A clash also erupted in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, when the police tried to disperse some 100 protesters for failing to show a protest permit, Antara said.

In the South Sulawesi capital of Makassar, thousands of students staged a series of similar protests throughout the day at the provincial legislative council to urge Megawati and her deputy Hamzah Haz to resign over the hikes.

"Megawati and Hamzah Haz have betrayed their own nation. It is utterly unfit for them to retain the posts," said Siswan, leader of the Student Executive Board (BEM) of the State University of Makassar (UNM).

A clash nearly broke out in Makassar in the afternoon when protesters stopped a fuel truck passing outside the council building and held it briefly.

In Jakarta, about 100 students gathered outside the House of Representatives (DPR) building, demanding the resignations of Megawati, Hamzah, House speaker Akbar Tandjung and People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) chairman Amien Rais over the price hikes.

"Now there are only two options left for the people: Remain silent and suffer, or rise up and fight to reclaim rights that have been stolen from us," said a leaflet distributed by the demonstrators.

Protests were also reported in the East Java capital of Surabaya, Cirebon in West Java, Yogyakarta, Pekalongan and Semarang in Central Java, Jayapura in Papua, Ternate in North Maluku, Mataram in West Nusa Tenggara, and several other towns and cities throughout Java, Bali, Sumatra and Sulawesi.

Tuesday saw bigger protests across the country than Monday, with more people joining strikes in many cities.

Drivers in a number of cities including Pekanbaru in Riau, and Semarang and Sidoarjo in East Java, have been on strike since Monday. More than 1,700 fishermen in Cirebon were also planning a strike.

"We will continue this action until the government listens to our grievances. The fuel price hike has extremely hurt us. It is impossible for us to go to sea with additional burdens," Jumadi, a 38-year old fisherman, told The Jakarta Post.

The government raised fuel prices by up to 22 percent on Jan. 2 as part of its continuing efforts to reduce costly and misdirected fuel subsidies and contain its budget deficit.

This increase was accompanied by hikes in electricity charges by six percent and in telephone tariffs by an average of 15 percent.

The price increases came into effect in the midst of the government's announcement of the much-criticized release and discharge policy aimed at exonerating big debtors from legal charges, which served to undermine the people's sense of justice.

The East Java branches of Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, the country's two main Muslim organizations, also joined demands for the increases to be reviewed, saying the motion was being made to prevent anarchy from breaking out in Indonesia.

MPR speaker Amien Rais also reiterated his call for the government to delay the increases in order to prevent national instability over the escalating demonstrations.

The government, nevertheless, said it had no plans to overturn the increases, arguing it was an unavoidable choice, despite the fact that the policy had subsequently pushed up the costs of staple foods.

To compensate for the price hikes, the government has allocated Rp 4 trillion as financial aid for the poor. The funds are to be distributed through seven sectors: education (Rp 1.2 trillion), health (Rp 600 billion), cheap rice for the poor (Rp 500 billion), small- and medium-sized businesses, maritime and fisheries, labor and transportation.

Labor and transportation unions, as well as student groups, have threatened to stage nationwide strikes unless the government annuls the rises.