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)
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