JAKARTA, 9 May 1998 -- The Indonesian government ordered soldiers to shoot looters and arsonists in the riot-torn city of Medan in northern Sumatra as protests spread into other provinces against a controversial government policy.
Medan police chief Lt-Col Nono Priyono said sharpshooters had been assigned to take part in patrolling the city on motorcycles. "They had a standing order to shoot troublemakers on sight. They can be dispatched to the scene of trouble instantly," Priyono said on Thursday.
Witnesses and victims had earlier complained that the troopers had done almost nothing to prevent looting. The soldiers reportedly only sat and looked on while burning and looting took place right in front of their eyes.
Meanwhile other key Indonesian cities such as Jakarta and Surabaya in eastern Java also saw bigger street demonstrations protesting against the petroleum-price hike and demanding that President Suharto, who has been in power since 1965, step down.
Students in Jakarta burnt the 77-year-old leader in effigy, saying that Suharto was a major cause of the economic crisis currently hitting Indonesia. Some student leaders said in their speeches that the crisis had created massive unemployment and higher prices and had prompted firms to close down.
"Hang Suharto! Hang Suharto!" the students chanted in unison. Indonesian media, however, reported yesterday that Medan was mostly calm, albeit tense, on Thursday after three days of rioting which began on Monday when thousands of Medan students went on to the street to protest against the petrol price hike.
A strong police presence was in position on most of Medan's main roads as the city struggled to restore calm, but most shops and banks remained closed. Prices of basic commodities also increased because of the closure.
The riots began on Monday when students in Medan clashed with the police. The protesters managed to penetrate police barricades and get away from their campuses. Others joined in and turned the initially peaceful rally into an anti-Chinese riot.
The protesters attacked Chinese-owned buildings, looted various goods from spring beds to sacks of rice and burned down Chinese-owned shops.
Some Chinese shopkeepers were also beaten while they were trying to persuade the mob not to loot their shops.
According to police, around 170 shops were destroyed and 38 cars and 21 motorcycles were set on fire. The police confirmed just one death, although other witnesses put the death toll at six, mostly due to people becoming trapped by fires.
A police spokesman said 423 people had been arrested during the three-day riot, including 145 university students and 28 high-school students. The others were workers.