Thousands protest rise in fuel prices

Violent demonstrations in various areas of Indonesia against a 30% hike may spread in the next few days, it is feared.

Political temperatures rose in Indonesia yesterday, when thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in violent protests against the government’s decision to push ahead with a fuel-price hike.

In West Java, mobs set fire to cars, blocked roads and looted petrol supplies as they clashed with security forces, which fired tear gas and warning shots to disperse them.

In the city of Bandung, about 6,000 people rallied against the 30-per-cent price rise which came into effect yesterday. In the city of Jambi in Sumatra, and Samarinda in East Kalimantan, thousands of transport workers went on strike, threatening to burn down petrol stations if Jakarta did not revoke the price hike.

Fuel-price increases have led to violent demonstrations in the past. In May 1998, a rise in fuel prices triggered riots that helped topple former president Suharto.

Military intelligence sources told The Sunday Times that trouble could spread over the next few days, especially in the big cities of Surabaya, Medan and Ujung Pandang, as many people outside Jakarta were still unaware of the price increase. Police said that more than 20,000 officers deployed in Jakarta were placed on high alert.

President Abdurrahman Wahid yesterday sought to downplay the problem. His spokesman Adhie Massardi told reporters yesterday: “The President expects the people to be able to cope with this. The impact of the fuel-price increase has been studied thoroughly by a government team.”

The Cabinet had initially decided against going ahead with the plan after receiving reports from the police that it could spark off nationwide unrest.

But ministers caved in on Friday night after deciding the government had to stick to the targets set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or risk losing the US$5 billion (S$9 billion) loan it froze last December.

One of the IMF’s requirements was for Jakarta to phase out all subsidies by next year. Indonesia has some of the world’s lowest fuel prices, but at huge subsidies, which the government can no longer afford.

Political observers said that the violent reaction to the price rise added to the number of politicians seeking his impeachment.

Legislators had backed the idea for an increase in fuel prices last year. But yesterday, several of them attacked the President for failing to implement the policy in phases, which would have eased its impact on consumers.

Mr Melono Soewondo, a senior PDI-P member, noted: “This is another case of government mismanagement. We gave it a year to act and it did nothing until now.”

The hike also incurred the wrath of the National Assembly (MPR) chairman Amien Rais.

He described the move as “amateurish” and warned that the MPR will hold the President accountable for it when they meet.

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