18 June 2008

Thought this might interest you...

Translated by James B

Excerpt: “Circles close to the Palace group Rizal in the same rank as former Indonesian Military Chiefretired Gen. Wiranto who now leads the Hanura Party and Fuad Bawazier, the former Finance Minister who hasalso joined that party. This group has adopted the flag bearing the words the People’s Challenge Front(FRM).”
Cover Story: On High Alert
Tempo Magazine - May 27-June 2, 2008

The government has raised the price of fuel, triggering protests everywhere. The Palace is worried that martyrs will fall, while the President has cancelled his trip to Italy.

Budi Setyarso – President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was to have visited Rome next week to attend a World Food Security Ministerial Level Meeting. The meeting, organized by the Food and Agricultural Organization, will, among other topics, discuss the world food crisis. But the domestic crisis may well put an end to the President’s plans.

“The President’s trip to Italy, also to England, has been canceled,” said a Tempo source. Presidential spokesperson Dino Patti Djalal has not disputed the information, although he claims it is not a cancellation, because the planned trip to these countries was not publicized.

The cancellation is presumably related to the government’s decision to increase fuel prices. Announced by Coordinating Minister for the Economy Boediono in Jakarta on Friday last week, the new price of premium gasoline has risen to Rp6,000, diesel to Rp5,500 and kerosene to Rp2,500. An average increase of 28.7 percent.

This is the third price increase to take place during the administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice President Jusuf Kalla. The government raised fuel prices on two previous occasions—on March 1, 2005 and October 1, 2005 (see table). Like previous occasions, the political temperature heated up in the lead up to the government making the decision. Thousands of demonstrators protesting the planned hikes took to the streets of Jakarta on Wednesday last week.

Demonstrators marched from the Hotel Indonesia roundabout to the Presidential Palace in Central Jakarta. Thousands of people from various age groups protested in the name of groups such as the Youth Movement Network, the Student Action Front, the Fishers & Farmers Awakening Front, the Indonesian Poor People’s Commission for Justice, the People’s Challenge Front and the Indonesian Poor People’s Union. The demonstration ended in chaos with policearresting scores of people.

A number of student groups also held demonstrations in front of the House of Representatives (DPR) building. This action also ended in chaos, with three protesters being injured. On late Friday afternoon—just prior to the announcement of the price increase—hundreds of University of Indonesia students gathered at the Pasar Minggu campus in South Jakarta. The students blocked the Jl. Pejaten Raya intersection and turned it into a speech forum.

Just before midnight, a small clash with the police occurred. But as dawn approached, police invaded the campus. “The police were forced to enter because the students pelted us with Molotov cocktails,” said National Police Headquarters spokesperson Insp. Gen. Abubakar Nataprawira.

The clash was unavoidable. The campus’ Faculty of Social & Political Science was severely damaged. Broken glass was scattered everywhere and drops of blood could be seen in some places. A car and a police motorbike were also damaged. “We will be consulting with lawyers to bring charges against the police,” said Hasto Atmodjo Surojo, the Dean of the Faculty of Social & Political Science. During the incident, 141 students were detained by police.

Similar protests—also involving significant numbers of people—were held in other cities over the last week. Several of these also ended in clashes, like in the South Sulawesi provincial capital of Makassar and the Central Java city of Yogyakarta. Protest actions are certain to continue now that the government finally announced the fuel price increases.

It is likely that the widespread street protests made Yudhoyono decide to stay at home. A Tempo source said the president was worried about the rising political heat when the price increases came into effect. “The President is worried that there will be martyrs, that demonstrators would be killed,” he said.

Ten years ago, the situation spiraled out of control after four University of Trisakti students were killed. The tense situation and political crisis that followed forced former President Suharto to relinquish power, which he had held for 32 years. This was the reason the Palace repeatedly warned security personnel on the ground to show restraint. Police wereprohibited from carrying firearms when confronting demonstrators.

Secret units or intelligence personnel were also ‘infiltrated’ into the Palace security guard. The members of these units observed the activities of demonstrators up close. On Wednesday last week, when news spread that a demonstrator had been shot in front of the DPR building, these intelligence personnel followed the victim to the Pelni Hospital in the WestJakarta area of Petamburan. They were relieved to see that the protester—who had allegedly been seriously wounded—was able to take part in Friday prayers.

Budi Darma, the demonstrator who was reportedly shot, said that they were actually about to end their protest. The student from the University of Indonesia’s Faculty of Social & Political Science had already taken off his varsity jacket. But the atmosphere, however, quickly turned anarchic. Then an “officer with a brown beret” approached him. “He aimed a rifle at me,” he told Fery Firmansyah and Ismi Wahid from Tempo, “and I suddenly felt a very sharp andstinging pain.”

He claims to have been shot by a rubber bullet but has been unable to find the cartridge. The left side of his chest is bandaged. According to Adi Negoro, head of the faculty’s Student Council, a team of doctors has confirmed that there were no internal wounds on the body of his colleague. “There was just a three centimeter long bruise,” he said.
The President’s supporters are claiming that the actions opposing the fuel price hikes are politically motivated. Their aim, they say, is to bring down Yudhoyono’s popularity before the 2009 general elections. “A former minister is behind thedemonstrations,” said National Intelligence Agency chief, Syamsir Siregar.

It is not difficult to guess who Syamsir is pointing the finger at—Rizal Ramli. The Coordinating Minister for the Economy in the Abdurrahman Wahid cabinet was indeed an activist who often took to the streets. But he denies using the student actions for his own ends. “The charge is an insult to the student’s intelligence,” he said.

Circles close to the Palace group Rizal in the same rank as former Indonesian Military Chief retired Gen.Wiranto who now leads the Hanura Party and Fuad Bawazier, the former Finance Minister who has also joined that party. This group has adopted the flag bearing the words the People’s Challenge Front (FRM).

In their protests, the FRM has raised the same issues as Wiranto: poverty. When they speaking at the Hotel Indonesia roundabout on Wednesday last week, activists from the group said that 40 million people in Indonesia are living in poverty and that there are 15 million people without jobs. This has been a central theme in advertisements placed by Wiranto’s team in various news media.

Wiranto, Rizal and Fuad all say they are not mobilizing the demonstrators, although Fuad does admit that they opposed the government’s decision to increase fuel prices from the start. The same demands, according to Fuad, have also been articulated by other student groups. “Without being mobilized, many people took part in the protests,” said the former Finance Minister in Suharto’s last cabinet.

The fuel price increase is an effective weapon to attack the government. The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the Justice & Prosperity Party (PKS) have both said they will launch a motion against it in the DPR. “The government should seek other options instead of increasing fuel prices,” said Mahfudz Siddiq, head of the PKS Faction in the DPR. Similar views were expressed by PDI-P executive, Maruarar Sirait.

In fact, the Law on the 2008 Revised State Budget provides a legal basis for the government to increase the price of subsidized fuel. Article 14 states that this can be done if there are significant changes. In the clarification section, significant changes assume the average price of Indonesian crude oil over a period of one year is above US$100 per barrel, which would result in an excessive subsidy burden on the government. Clearly, such conditions have been met.

It appears, however, that the article is being conveniently ignored by many political parties, whose factions ipso facto signed the law. “Usually, in the lead up to general elections, many parties seek the people’s support,” said one government official. This is the reason they will still plan to call for a motion against it in the DPR.

The government’s decision also threatens to undermine Yudhoyono’s popularity. Three years ago, when the government increased fuel prices two-fold, the popularity of Indonesia’s fourth president was relatively stable. Based on the results of a survey by the Indonesian Survey Institute at the time, his popularity dropped by only 4 percent from an initial 69 percent approval rating.

This initial support base has now declined quite drastically to only 53 percent— although this figure is still far higher than that of other political figures mentioned as presidential candidates. According to a survey conducted in January, thepopularity of Yudhoyono’s nearest rival, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was still around the 32 percent mark.

According to presidential spokesperson Andi Mallarangeng, President Yudhoyono chose this unpopular policy for the sake of securing the country. “It is better to sacrifice [one’s] popularity rather than the national interest,” he said. But he is convinced that the fuel price increase will not affect his boss’ popularity in the general elections next year.

Over the coming weeks, Yudhoyono’s political opponents will continue trying to erode his popularity. The President, it seems, will have to stay in Jakarta for a while longer, and forget about Italy for the moment.

Budi Setyarso

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