Wednesday, September 30, 1998

Indonesia faces dire rice problem

The Nation, September 30, 1998, Wednesday

The shortage of rice is getting very serious in Indonesia as even farmers scrounge for their staple food. Andreas Harsono writes.

Prior to the ongoing economic crisis, Warsan used to run a small business, producing and selling furniture from his wooden house in the little village of Klampok, 320 kilometres southeast of Jakarta.

''Now a piece of this six-centimetre-thick foam is 60,000 rupiah. It was only 15,000 rupiah last year,'' said Warsan, taking a piece of blue upholstery material out of his workshop.

Unable to resist the pressure, the carpenter, who uses only one name, finally had to close down his business six months ago and even sold his house to pay his bank charges.

''Nobody cares to buy furniture any more. Their top priority is buying rice,'' said Warsan's wife, Chodiah, who joined her husband in an interview on Sept 19 holding her youngest daughter.

The difficulties of the Warsans are a worrying example of many Indonesian families whose breadwinners have lost their jobs and have trouble feeding their children.

Warsan and Chodiah have six children, whose ages range from 19 years to the 13-month-old infant. Their eldest, a daughter recently gave birth to their first grandchild.

''Most of the time, I have to go into debt to buy our daily rice. We eat only rice and vegetables. I don't remember the last time we ate meat,'' said the 40-year-old Chodiah, who suffers from acute tuberculosis but has no money for intensive medication.

Warsan is a freelance carpenter now. He mends broken furniture or takes part-time work in a big furniture shop, earning between 6,000 and 7,000 rupiah a day, just enough to buy three kilogrammes of rice.

''Sometimes he brings no money home, but sometimes we can still buy 500 rupiah worth of bones to make a tiny bowl of soup for the baby,'' said Chodiah, adding that her family's diet has changed from vegetables to tempe soybean cake.

The food problem began with the depreciation of the Indonesian rupiah, which weakened from 2,300 to the US dollar in July last year to around 10,000 this month. Consequently Indonesia has had to to increase the domestic price of rice, which has quadrupled from 800 rupiah per kilogramme last year to between 2,500 and 3,000 this month.

Government agencies predict that 15 million of Indonesia's 200 million people are having difficulty buying rice and widespread looting of rice warehouses and paddy fields have taken place in some parts of the country.

Minister of Food Distribution A M Saefuddin said the calculation of rice stocks was based on the assumption that with a monthly rice consumption of 11 kg per person, the total need for 200 million people would be about 2.2 million tonnes per month.

The government imported some from Thailand, Pakistan and the United States, but Saefuddin said many people were hoarding their rice stocks because of price uncertainty.

''Shortages of food are especially acute off the island of Java. There are people who can't get access to rice any more,'' said Jeffrey Winters, professor of political economy at Northwestern University in Illinois.

Winters added that Indonesia, once proclaimed self-sufficient in rice production, was now the world's largest importer of rice. ''That's very expensive for Indonesia at a time when the rupiah is very, very weak,'' he said.

In a bid to help poor families, the worst victims of this crisis, the Indonesian government has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to finance a scheme by which poor families can buy heavily subsidised rice. Each poor family is given a coupon for 10 kg of rice a month at 1,000 rupiah a kilogramme.

''But there are families who cannot afford 10,000 rupiah a month to buy rice. They're the poorest of the poor,'' said social worker Edy Purwanto of the Klampok-based Emanuel Hospital.

Quoting statistical measures from the Indonesian Family Planning Agency, Purwanto said a person is considered poor who among other things cannot afford to consume 300 grammes of rice a day.

This makes the Warsans -- two parents, one son-in-law, six children and one grandchild -- poor, as they cannot afford three kilogrammes of rice every day.

By this standard, Purwanto said, between 17 and 25 per cent of families in Klampok were categorised as poor before the crisis. Now around 70 per cent are, including the newly poor Warsans.

The impacts on many villagers is devastating. Many parents have taken their children out of school. Around 6,000 children have reportedly dropped out this semester, almost half the school-age children in the district. Crime has increased. Several villagers admit that they spend the night in their paddy fields in case of theft. Stories abound in the district of paddy being stolen from fields and rice from bowls.

''We're still fortunate that our children do not complain much. Children eat anything if they're hungry,'' said Chodiah, mentioning that only one of her six children still goes to school. The others have dropped out.

Sunday, September 27, 1998

Abri to face changes in Indonesia

With the power changing hands and the people regaining a stronger voice, there's a new role for Abri, writes Andreas Harsono. 

IT began in the morning when an angry Chinese shop owner scolded one of her employees over a careless work. But the tension prompted that helpless worker to immediately run away from the ''Rejo Agung'' shop and went to a bus terminal nearby. 

Sukiman told his version to the people there. And it did not take long before hundreds of drivers, would-be passengers, street vendors and students to circle that small shop, shouted anti-Chinese remarks, ran amok and inserted a burning tire into the retail store. 

Three hours after the scolding, anti-Chinese sentiment mixed with economic hardship in this small-town of nearly 100,000 have finally provoked the mob to attack other Chinese-owned businesses. Looters took out most goods, from rice to cooking oil, from clothes to razor blades. They used molotov cocktail to burn almost all Chinese-owned shops in front of the Kebumen market. 

It only began to calm in the evening but the Sept 7 riots ultimately ended up with more than 40 Chinese-owned buildings burned down or almost half of the town's Chinese- owned businesses. Several Chinese shop owners said there was no sign of police or military during the riots. 

''Only my Javanese neighbours who helped to extinguish the fire on the roof,'' said Chinese trader Feriani Listianto whose ''Walet'' shop suffered minor destruction.

''The police station is actually located in front of the Rejo Agung shop,'' said student Jhony Purwono who opens a small street vendor, adding that the police practically did nothing to prevent the rioters to burn nearly the whole town. 

The police incompetence in this town, around 400 kilometres southeast of Jakarta, is a troubling example on how troublesome the position of the Indonesian military is. 

Military analysts said the reputation of the Indonesian armed forces, whose abbreviation is locally known as Abri, had never been worse than today. Notorious human rights record, grave involvement in lucrative businesses and dangerous engagement in dirty political operations during the Suharto rule have seriously damaged its name. 

''The Indonesian people mostly regard military personnel as criminals or armed hoodlums, but they do not dare express such feelings openly,'' said Hermawan Sulistiyo, a political researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. 

In Kebumen, once again both the military and the police, which are organised under the Abri structure, has been proved to lack the expertise and the ability to maintain order. Jokes circulated among Jakarta's elite said Abri has the expertise in many fields. 

From business to politics -- but not on the military operation itself. A government-sponsored commission to investigate the May riots in Jakarta has recently revealed a similar problem. Frictions took place between the army and the police during the May 14-16 riots to an extent that had prompted the Jakarta police to withdraw their troops from the riot-hit areas to their respective barracks. Radio communication also broke down. 

Commanders took the initiatives into their own hands. Soldiers did nothing when watching looters burning down Chinese-owned shops, banks and houses. Worse than that, instead of guarding strategic places, army commanders were busily involved themselves in guarding business sites or rich housing areas whose owners could offer bigger payment. Army commanders set up their respective prices. 

Stationing a tank in front of a complex costs 10 million rupiah or around $ 1,000 per day. A company of almost 100 soldiers was priced at between 7.5 and 15 million per day. 

Jakarta and Kebumen are only two examples. The military incompetence has increased concern here amidst riots which break out in various scales on almost daily basis. From oil-rich Lhokseumawe in northern Sumatra to Baucau in East Timor, off the Australian waters, riots and looting have helped destabilized this world's forth most populous country. 

Opposition leader Amien Rais of the National Mandate Party warned in August that further riots and looting might bring Indonesia on the brink of disintegration, saying that the military should ''reform itself'' and goes back to the barrack if it wants to stop the disintegration. 

Theoretically in three or four hours, the Kebumen security forces could ask a larger enforcement from military barracks from neighboring towns between 30 minutes and two-hour driving away. But they did not do it. 

''We're totally outnumbered,'' said a police spokesman. 

The unspoken reason is that most soldiers here are actually demoralized and not well trained to use riot-control methods. They could easily blockaded the Rejo Agung area in a bid to prevent the riots. But they did not do it. Soldiers here usually just used repressive measures such as firing live ammunition, torturing key witnesses or kidnapping human rights activists during the Suharto rule. 

Now with fall of Suharto, soldiers are automatically discouraged from using those old habits. Recent revelations on the torture, killing, kidnap and rapes involving Indonesian soldiers in the politically-troubled Aceh in northern Sumatra and the internationally-disputed East Timor have also seriously tarnished the reputation of the Indonesian army.  

Muslim protesters also frequently urged the newly-appointed government of President B J Habibie to reopen investigation into the Tanjung Priok massacre in 1984 during which more than 150 Muslims were allegedly killed. The fresh investigation is very likely to corner several retired military figures which include former vice president Try Sutrisno and former Abri commander General Benny Moerdani. 

Meanwhile, Abri commander-in-chief General Wiranto has repeatedly pledged to use firm measures against looters and rioters but it largely went out unheeded. 

The Forum Keadilan bi-weekly once reported that looters in one particular shrimp pond only burst into laughter when some soldiers opened fire into the air. They knew very well that those soldiers were nervous and would never take firm measures. 

Foreign diplomats and analysts here also said that many young frustrated officers, who prefer to concentrate their energy to their professions rather than the day-to-day politics, are also annoyed at Wiranto who is widely seen not firm enough to distance himself from the Suharto regime. 

Wiranto told a parliamentarian hearing in mid-September that Abri is to keep its ''dual function'' role in which the military is given a wide role in the country's socio-politic life besides its more traditional role in defense. 

''Therefore, rumors on a planned disbanding of the Abri socio-political institution is not true. Even though there are changes, it does not mean that the socio-political institution will be disbanded,'' Wiranto said, referring to the military's influential socio-political department. 

Regional analyst Dewi Fortuna Anwar, who is also an aide to Habibie however, saw the problem from a rather different angle, saying that it is true Indonesia has a weak president, a tarnished military and troubled economy. But such a sorry state of affairs actually provides a window of opportunity to prevent the rise of yet another strongman ruler like Suharto who had caused people suffering. 

''While in earlier times the state was always stronger than society, now the reverse is true,'' Anwar said. 

''The troubles faced by the military and its overall lack of credibility because of human rights abuses compound the impression of a relatively weak state on the one hand and an increasingly powerful civil society on the other.'' 

''There is now .. an opportunity to prevent the rise of another strongman and personal rule once and for all, as well as to reduce the military's involvement in politics. The way is now open,'' she said. 

Indeed, the question remained the same. How much money is the cost of this process of democratization. How many more victims will fall? And how many more towns and cities are to be burned? 

Andreas Harsono is The Nation's Jakarta correspondent. 

 Copyright(C) 1998 The Nation (Bangkok)

Saturday, September 19, 1998

Still problems for Jakarta scribes


Despite the fall of Suharto, Indonesian journalists still have to look around before going ahead with their stories, writes Andreas Harsono.

RELEASED from the shackles of former President Suharto's dictatorship, Indonesian journalists still have to carefully count on many powerful organisations and influential figures before going to press with their stories on gruesome human rights abuses.

''Suharto is gone but Abri is still here to stay,'' said Ati Nurbaiti (on Monday), a reporter of the English-language Jakarta Post daily, referring to the local acronym of the Indonesian Armed Forces which has won notoriety because of its human rights record.

According to Nurbaiti, Indonesian newspapers usually consider a number of factors before publishing sensitive human rights reports or corruption scandals. The military is one factor. The government of newly-appointed President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie is another one.

Although the Habibie government is relatively weaker than the Suharto regime, but it is still closely related. Critics say Habibie only continues the Suharto regime despite Habibie's repeated attempt to distance himself from the Indonesian strongman.

Last but not least, journalists have also to consider the Muslims in Indonesia which has the largest Muslim population in a single country in the world. Many of them are quite intolerant toward the media.

A right-wing Muslim organisation just recently filed a lawsuit against the ''Jakarta-Jakarta'' monthly men's magazine over its report on a massive anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta in May.

The Muslim group alleges that the magazine had tarnished the good name of Islam after quoting an Internet report on a rape victim. The victim reportedly quoted her rapist as saying, ''You must be raped because you're Chinese and non-Muslim,'' implicating that the rapist is a Muslim and a pribumi which literally translates as ''indigenous''.

The Muslim group argues correctly that the Internet report is baseless on the grounds that the victim is never known and that her account is only distributed on the Internet.

''Reporting human rights violence is a tricky issue,'' said Nurbaiti.

''Women issue is indeed considered to be an acceptable issue. But not gang rape in a military-operation area such as in Aceh.''

Aceh was considered to a no-journalist zone during the Suharto era. But Suharto's fall in May has drastically encouraged many Aceh figures, human rights workers as well as the media to expose massive killing that took place in the area since it was declared a military-operation area in 1989.

Just like in the internationally-disputed East Timor, Aceh in northern Sumatra as well as Irian Jaya in the Pacific, have witnessed many torture, mass rapes and even massacres conducted by the Indonesian army.

Budiman Tanuredjo, a legal correspondent of the Jakarta-based Kompas daily, Indonesia's biggest serious newspaper, also noted (on Monday) difficulties when reporting human rights abuses, saying that some of his colleagues had recently received threats through their beepers, handphones or even being tailed by intelligent people.

''When the Dili massacre took place in November 1991, we had to do our best to write our reports. Now it is easier to report the Aceh case,'' said Budiman, adding that he had received various kind of warning after publishing an interview with then outspoken East Timor Governor Mario Carrascalao over the mass killing in the East Timor capital.

''There's still Abri generals who are hostile against the media. But they're less powerful,'' said the 34-year-old correspondent who had covered legal and human rights issue since 1991.

Indeed, just like both Nurbaiti and Budiman agreed, the Habibie era has slightly created a relatively press freedom here. The Suharto period was marred by the closure of more than 30 news organisations which include Indonesia's most established weekly magazine Tempo in 1994.

According to Habibie's Information Minister Muhammad Yunus, he had already approved the publications of more than 120 news magazines, tabloids and dailies since the fall of Suharto.

''I practically signed one new licence everyday,'' Yunus says in August, adding that he is to pass a new media law to the parliament which is to free publishers from having a publishing licence.

In Ujungpandang, a major port city in southern Sulawesi in the eastern part of Indonesia, eight new weeklies suddenly appear in the market. Two new dailies are soon going to compete against the three existing dailies. These media have to compete one to each other to publish more exclusive reports.

The Jakarta-based bi-weekly 'Tajuk' even claims to be an entertainment, business and investigative magazine, focusing its reports on poll-based and in-depth reporting.

Budiman, however, noted that his newspaper is always trying to publish a story ''proportionately'' no matter how conservative such a stance to be compared with other ''more daring and outspoken media''.

Goenawan Mohamad, the chief editor of the Tempo news weekly, stresses the need to ''institutionalise'' the relatively press freedom enjoyed by the media, saying that media advocates, journalists and editors should work hard to change the Suharto-inherited draconian media laws.

Goenawan believes that no such a free lunch. It is better to have freedom, although a little bit chaotic, rather than being censored and ''guided'' by the government just like what had happened over the last 30 years in Suharto's Indonesia.

Despite many difficulties, foreign diplomats and media observers here are quite usual to build the expertise to read between the lines. Leading newspapers such as Kompas, The Jakarta Post and Tempo have a long reputation of always trying to expand the limit of media openness.

According to Tanuredjo, his method when interviewing his sources is always being a ''moderate reporter, not bending to the left, nor to the right''. When facing activists, Tanuredjo tends to place himself as if he is a bureaucrat, raising questions toward the activists like what the bureaucrats used to do. On the contrary, if he is to question bureaucrats, he tend to think like the activists, raising arguments or questions like the activists.

''In short I cannot just easily swallow their data or arguments,'' says Budiman.

Perhaps, tired of being harassed and having the euphoria of the post-Suharto period, might also encourage reporters to be more aggressive. A group of angry reporters and photographers beat up an intelligence officer in early September for blocking and pulling the collars of some of the journalists when they were trying to doorstep timber tycoon Mohamad Hasan.

The army sergeant even took out his FN .45 pistol to discourage the journalists from covering Hasan's six-hour questioning at the Attorney General's office in Jakarta in connection with widespread allegations of corruption.

When a group of photographers tried to take the picture of Hasan, who is also a close associate to Suharto, Sgt Ramli got in their way and pulled at the collars of the pushy reporters after Hasan proved to be reluctant to answer their questions.

''He was disturbing our job. Imagine, he grabbed my collar and tried to pull me away. That was why I kicked him away,'' says Kompas journalist Arbain Rambey, adding that the journalists then shouted, ''thief, thief'' before chasing and beating the officer.

-- Andreas Harsono is The Nation's Jakarta correspondent.