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Fault Lines

This was my first effort to try to capture the changes taking place under the surface in Indonesia in the months leading up to Suharto’s downfall. I wasn’t the first to notice that even doctors wanted him out, but it was nevertheless a bit of a shock to me to hear people saying that into a journalist’s ear — I’d been used, during my time in Indonesia in the mid 1990s, not to expect such talk unless it was from the radical fringe or someone who wasn’t entirely sober. This was my first real feature for the Journal, and it benefited hugely from the work of a fellow editor, Jesse Pesta.

Fault Lines: Indonesians Remain Split About Who’s to Blame

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Staff Reporter

18 February 1998

The Asian Wall Street Journal
(c) 1998 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

BANDUNG, Indonesia — Price increases, food shortages and mass layoffs are fueling a rash of riots across Indonesia. But you wouldn’t know it up here on the outskirts of this west Java hill town, where a shopkeeper called Mrs. Ade is still trying to figure out what hit her.

For weeks, customers have been a rarity at her stall in Sakajulang, a red-roofed village hugging the rim of a misty valley. That’s just as well, because she couldn’t afford to restock her shelves anyway. A few days ago, for the first time in years, she returned from the local market empty-handed, unable to find anything she might resell. Her 88-year-old mother-in-law has begun foraging every day for cassava leaves to sell and eat.

Yet when asked who is to blame for the malaise, Mrs. Ade replies: “I don’t know.” While rioters blame ethnic Chinese shopkeepers, and President Suharto blames international financiers, many ordinary Indonesians haven’t yet identified a culprit. Long cowed by officialdom, few seem to be in the mood for outright protest yet. Of course that could change quickly as the effects of the crisis linger and worsen. But now is an important moment, as the nation quickly approaches the March selection of its next president — widely expected to be Suharto again — and his vice president.

Consider the south Jakarta neighborhood of Mr. Said (like many Indonesians, he uses only one name). Standing cheek-by-jowl with a luxury home that wasn’t there a few years ago — and which blocked neighborhood drainage — his run-down concrete house now gets flooded regularly. A youngster fishes with a makeshift rod in a garbage-strewn pond, and some other youths, spotting a foreigner, shout, “Hey, he must have dollars!”

Apart from this, Indonesia’s economy hadn’t greatly touched this corner of the capital — at least, not until prices started rising. It’s a common topic of discussion in the household, but everyone is at a loss to explain it. “Sure, we get angry sometimes about this,” says Mr. Said’s daughter, Ms. Yung, “but against who? . . . We’re the little people, we don’t know why it happens, it just happens.” Ms. Yung, who operates a small neighborhood shop, says her business has fallen by 50% since early January.

At the Hasan Sadikin hospital in Bandung, three hours away, 56-year-old widow Mrs. Suryati recounts her woes to a posse of doctors looking down the throat of her son Hannibal, 37. My life is “giving me a headache right now,” she complains. Her 160,000 rupiah pension must now stretch to cover her son’s expenses, too, after cancer forced him to give up his job two months ago. The stall she used to operate stopped making money weeks ago, so she closed it.

Now she’s worried her son will have to undergo expensive radiotherapy treatment. Doctors say the treatment would now cost her double what it did a month ago, or more than three times her monthly pension. Mrs. Suryati blames the government for the economic trouble, but Hannibal disagrees. “It’s more complex,” he says, clutching his hospital papers. “It’s not just Indonesia but a global thing,” he adds, offering: “Maybe it’s Jewish groups.” The doctors laugh nervously at this.

Later, out of ear-shot of his colleagues, one doctor whispers: “Off the record: President Suharto should go.”

The president should go. How far this heresy, rarely heard even a few months ago, spreads may depend on students, a traditional infantry of protest in Indonesia.

But even they remain cautious. Those at Bandung Institute of Technology — the premier school of science in Indonesia, and traditionally a restive institution — say they are finding it hard to make ends meet too: Prices of basic supplies such as paper and printer cartridges have risen up to fourfold since the crisis began. “Even for us, the short-term question is always `how do we overcome this crisis?'” one female student says.

Meanwhile, organized dissent, never easy in tightly controlled Indonesia, is getting harder: In a terse letter to students in late January, the school banned all non-official activities on campus. Nevertheless, several hundred students rallied outside the campus Tuesday calling for the government to give more attention to the needs of ordinary people. Witnesses said truckloads of police watched, but the incident ended peacefully.

Beyond that single incident, there has been little overt action so far. In a boarding house up a narrow alley in north Bandung, for instance, a group of students and alumni squat on a messy floor to sip sweet tea and debate whether the crisis is of Suharto’s making, or a U.S. conspiracy. It’s a curious mix of subversiveness and nationalism. One attendee calls the crisis a national humiliation. “See this?” he says, waving a 50,000-rupiah note. “It’s now worth about $5.” Elsewhere in the world, people would use it “to buy a hamburger,” he says. But “here, this is our largest denomination.”

As the discussion turns to placing blame, an engineering student says, “We know it’s not the Chinese who are solely responsible, but we’re not brave enough to attack the military” — a vastly powerful institution in Indonesia. “So the Chinese are the first target.”

But all agree there is little organized dissent. “If someone is brave enough to do something, things will change,” the engineering student says. “Until then, everybody is waiting for something to happen.”

Other people are less patient. Further up the hill, a clutch of bus drivers escape the evening drizzle by huddling under an awning as cars splash past. Some vehicles swing right, heading to a posh hotel just around the corner, where an a capella quintet garbed in white is performing selections from The Sound of Music before a well-heeled local crowd.

But the bus drivers, who sleep in their vehicles and shower in a mosque nearby, are singing the blues. They are angry because the government has kept a lid on fares despite the rising cost of spare parts and dwindling passengers. Their colleagues in the south of the city have been on strike since Saturday, sparking a riot in the nearby town of Pengalengan in which several shops were looted.

These drivers say they simply want to keep their jobs, and earn enough money to send home to their families. But they sense that’s not going to be so easy anymore.

“As long as you don’t touch the basic necessities, nothing will happen, but if you do, people will react,” says Thomas, a 34-year-old college dropout, who asked that his full name not be used. He’s the most articulate of the group, and the others nod somberly at what he says.

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