West Java violence
may be rooted in frustration
Economic woes coalescence with anger against "police brutality"
By Susan Sim, Indonesia Correspondent
The Sunday Times. December 29, 1996. Page 14.

JAKARTA -- Till the mid-80s, Tasikmalaya was a sort of "sleepy 
hollow", as famous for its high-quality handwoven cloth as for the 
gentle nature of its people.

Nestling in a volcanic area and surrounded by curative hot 
springs, the predominantly Muslim town with a population of 
500,000 joined the hustle and bustle of modernisation only in the 
early 90s when the department store came to town.

As more supermarkets came along, some time-honed traditions also 
died, and a whole social class with them. The saudara santris, the 
traditional Muslim merchants, found that they could not cope with 
the competition from the big boys who touted cheap durable fabrics 
and sundries at lower prices and in more comfortable environs.

Many traders and craftsmen in Tasikmalaya went belly-up, as did 
others before them in towns all over Java.

But unlike elsewhere, the simmering resentment against the modern 
interlopers in the West Java town found an outlet on Thursday when 
anger over alleged police brutality boiled over and erupted.

What influential Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid characterised as 
a "trivial" matter -- the beating up of three Muslim teachers by 
several policemen after one of the officers' son was punished by a 
teacher for stealing -- led to the burning and destruction of 
police stations, churches and scores of shops and homes belonging 
to a number of the town's 5,000 ethnic Chinese.

"There is much dissatisfaction and resentment against the 
increasing economic power of the ethnic Chinese everywhere in 
Indonesia," Mr Wahid explained to The Straits Times yesterday. "It 
is particularly felt in Tasikmalaya. Feelings of frustration are 
also directed against the Chinese because they are easier targets 
than the government."

Christians too were perceived to be another group taking advantage 
of the decline of the saudara santri class, and easy victims, he 
said.

Like many, including Christian groups, he did not believe the mob 
violence directed against them was motivated by religion. But 
because the majority of the Muslims in the area were members of 
his Nahlatul Ulama, he was among the first to condemn the 
violence.

Like he did when Muslim mobs torched more than 20 churches in 
Situbondo, East Java, in October for no apparent reason.

But unlke the riot in Situbondo, which many think was orchestrated 
because the violence was directed almost exclusively against 
churches, the Tasikmalaya mobs left a more extensive trial of 
destruction.

There, economic grievances had coalesced with longstanding anger 
against allleged police brutality to create a volatile tinderbox. 
And last week, some agent provocateur lit a match, government 
officials contended.

Mr Wahid did not discount the possibility that extremist Islamic 
elements were at work in Tasikmalaya.

But he said that Muslims in the town were also "dejected" that 
their own leaders could not provide them with leadership against 
illegal acts perpetuated by some government officials, including 
those who beat up the three teachers.

"The very closeness of the leaders with the government is a reason 
that people are frustrated they can't channel their complaints to 
the authorities," he noted, adding that the NU did not have any 
mechanism to control its 30 million followers.

Legal aid worker Henasari, whose house in the town was stoned by 
mobs who did not know her Chinese father was Muslim, concurred.

The depth of anger against the local police was such that a mob 
even marched 40 km to torch an outlying police station during the 
riots, she said.

"Now the military has to protect the police," she added.

~~Forwarded by e.p.lim. All typos if any are his.~~


Return to Project Open Book