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Sep '05

Fuel Price Protests Weaker Than Expected

Thousands of people protested in major cities on Thursday (29/9/05) against looming fuel price increases, although the demonstrations were generally much smaller than expected.

Some of the demonstrators demanded that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice President Jusuf Kalla resign for failing to improve the nation’s economy and curb inflation. But no one is predicting the president will be brought down by the opposition to the fuel price increases, which come into effect on Saturday and are expected to be in the vicinity of 50%. Protests fizzled out a few weeks after the president in March raised fuel prices by an average of 29%.

Coordinating Minister for the Economy Aburizal Bakrie said the government would announce the level of the new increases at 10pm Friday, after the president holds a limited cabinet meeting and signs a decree cutting fuel subsidies and outlining compensation plans.

The government has promised to give about 15.5 million of the country’s poorest citizens a compensation payment of Rp300,000 ($32) to last them for three months.

The Rector of Gadja Mada University, Sofyan Effendi, who met with Yudhoyono on Wednesday, said the president was considering increasing prices by 30% to 50%, but was “awaiting input from various sides” before making a final decision.

Indonesians have long enjoyed some of the cheapest fuel in Asia because of heavy government subsidies, which amounted to about $7 billion last year. But this year’s spiraling world oil prices have forced the nation to spend much more on fuel imports, sparking a crisis of confidence in the economy.

Gasoline currently sells for a mere Rp2,400 (23 cents) a liter, while diesel costs Rp2,200/liter and kerosene Rp700/liter. Prices could double depending on the level of the increases. In recent weeks, fuel prices have already soared in many parts of the country due to shortages caused by panic-buying, hoarding and smuggling.

Parliament recently approved the government’s plan to spend Rp89.2 trillion on fuel subsidies this year. So far Rp78 trillion has been spent, leaving about Rp11 trillion for the remainder of the year. That means that consumers will receive a subsidy of Rp800 to Rp1,000 a liter, said Bakrie.

He said kerosene, which is mainly used by low-income households for cooking and lighting, would continue to be given the biggest subsidy. Kerosene subsidies would remain in place until the end of 2007, whereas subsidies for gasoline and diesel would be terminated at the end of 2006, he added.

Thousands of police were deployed at gas stations in major cities on Thursday in case the protests turned violent. There were few violent incidents, although long queues of motorists at gas stations exacerbated traffic congestion and caused some cases of road rage, especially when impatient motorcyclists and bus drivers rudely attempted to jump queues. Anti-riot police had to intervene to break up at least one scuffle between motorcyclists at a gas station in Kalideres, West Jakarta.

In the East Java capital of Surabaya, gas station operators tried to prevent shortages by limiting fuel sales to Rp10,000 to motorcyclists and Rp50,000 to other motorists. In the North Sumatra capital of Medan, usually congested streets were relatively quiet, as just about anyone with a vehicle seemed to be queuing at gas stations, resulting in fuel shortages at some of the outlets.

Weak Jakarta Protest
In Jakarta, protest organizers had boasted they would mobilize 14,000 people to march to the state palace, but they only managed to attract only a few thousand.

Hundreds of protesters commenced a demonstration at the Istiqlal Mosque at 9am, while more than 1,000 others gathered at the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle and marched down the city’s main thoroughfare to the presidential palace. They were escorted by almost 200 police officers.

The protesters included Muslim activists, university students and public transport drivers, as well as left-wing activists, farmers and workers grouped in the People’s Criticism Alliance (Aliansi Rakyat Menggugat or ARM). They said fuel price rises would only increase the people’s suffering.

The participation of city-run bus company PPD’s drivers, who were on strike for a second consecutive day, left thousands of commuters stranded.

Rekson Silaban, chairman of the Confederation of Indonesian Prosperous Workers Union (KSBSI), said about 1,000 workers from Jakarta and its satellite cities of Tangerang, Bekasi and Cilegon had joined the protest.

In addition to rejecting the price increases, the protesters also demanded the annulment of the 2003 Manpower Law and a recent presidential regulation that allows the government to forcibly take private land for state projects.

They also called for agriculture reform, minimum wage increases, an end to lay-offs, greater freedom to form trade unions, creation of job opportunities, free education and health care, and better protection of migrant workers.

The crowd at the palace began disbursing before mid-afternoon.

Safety With Sutiyoso
Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso said the city remained safe because he was still in charge. “With the situation normal at present, there’s no need for people to panic. If you want to go shopping, then go shopping. If you want to drink coffee, then drink coffee. Just relax as long as Bang Yos is here,” he was quoted as saying by detikcom online news portal.

Sutiyoso, a retired general, is fond of using his nickname Bang Yos. Bang is Betawi (the local language of people born and bred in Jakarta) for ‘older brother’, while Yos is a truncation of Sutiyoso. The governor is not actually an orang Betawi (Jakarta native) but comes from the Central Java capital of Semarang.

He said the Jakarta Police had deployed 5,260 personnel to ensure the protests proceeded peacefully, while several military units were placed on reserve in case things got out of control. “The demonstrations were not as big as we had predicted. Perhaps there were only 5,000 people at most. Between the protesters and the security forces, there were more security forces. There were no problems, it was well handled and there was no need to call in the reserve forces. The security officials will be armed if the situation becomes chaotic,” he added.

The governor also said operations would be carried out in the city to prevent fuel hoarding.

Jakarta Police deputy chief Brigadier General Bagus Ekodanto echoed Sutiyoso’s reassurance of the city’s safety. “So far a First Alert status has not yet been issued. If there are anarchists, we will arrest them,” he was quoted as saying by detikcom.

Central Jakarta Police chief Sukrawardi, who monitored the protest at the presidential palace, said his personnel had been prepared for months in advance to use persuasive dialogue to ensure that demonstrations would not become violent.

Resignation Demand
The student wing of the nation’s second largest Muslim organization Muhammadiyah said the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) must convene an extraordinary session to demand the resignation of Yudhoyono and Kalla if the government goes ahead with its plan to raise fuel prices, state news agency Antara reported.

“The executive board of the Association of Muhammadiyah Students [IMM] declares to the public that it rejects the fuel price hikes,” the association said in a statement signed by its chairman Khoiril Muttaqin and secretary Amiruddin.

The association seemed to have missed the point that Yudhoyono is the country’s first democratically elected president and can be voted out of office at elections in 2009 if the people are genuinely upset by his performance.

IMM called on the government to control the distribution of fuel, punish fuel smugglers and hoarders, and ensure that corrupt officials do not embezzle fuel compensation payments.

The association said the government must be more transparent and familiarize the public about the distribution of the compensation funds for the education and health sectors.

IMM also urged the government to improve the management and performance of state agencies involved in the economic, mining and energy sectors. The association said it opposes every government policy that does not side with the people but instead causes public unease, such as unannounced power blackouts, fuel price hikes that spark inflation, gambling and the privatization of natural resources. Gambling is illegal but remains common throughout much of the country due to poor law enforcement.

PDI-P Denies Funding Protests
Former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) is opposed to the fuel price increases, but has denied allegations that it is funding the anti-government protests.

PDI-P legislator Effendi Simbolon demanded that State Intelligence Agency (BIN) chief Syamsir Siregar provide proof of his accusation that a “certain political party” was funding the demonstrations.

“That’s not true. I ask Syamsir Siregar to prove his information that PDI-P is behind it,” he was quoted as saying by detikcom.

He said PDI-P’s central board and parliamentary faction had decided not to support any protests that took place outside of parliament.

Makassar: VP’s House Under Attack
In the South Sulawesi capital of Makassar, more than 1,000 university students attempted to march to Vice President Jusuf Kalla’s private residence on Jalan Haji Bau but were stopped by a cordon of police about 50 meters away from the house. The angry protesters responded by throwing stones at the police for about 15 minutes.

The police did not respond with violence but merely used their anti-riot shields to protect themselves. This only made the students angrier and they screamed abuse at police before eventually agreeing to disperse peacefully.

Also in Makassar, about 1,500 student protesters from Hasanuddin University threw stones as they smashed their way into the State Finance Building on Jalan Urip Sumoharjo.

The demonstrators said the government must not raise fuel prices but should instead find other ways to reduce the state budget deficit, such as by raising import taxes on luxury goods. They vowed not to leave the building until their demands were met, but later left after negotiating with police.

Palu: Shots Fired
Antara reported that “thousands of students” in the Central Sulawesi capital of Palu tried to occupy a tightly guarded gas station and threw stones at police. Other reports said police fired warning shots and used batons to disperse the crowd of “500 students” after one policeman was attacked and suffered a head injury.

Palu Police chief Guntur Widodo later arrived at the location and urged his subordinates only to use simple self-defense when under attack, rather than resorting to gunfire.

Before the gas station incident, the students had set fire to old tires outside the provincial legislative assembly building and sang songs calling for the resignation of Yudhoyono and Kalla. The crowd then tried to enter the building’s main conference room but was kept back by police, resulting in pushing and shoving between the two

Padang: Graveyard Groove
University students in the West Sumatra capital of Padang rallied outside the provincial legislative assembly building, but then moved on to a military cemetery, saying the new protest location was chosen because they could not get any responses from living people.

Student leaders accused the country’s political leaders of betraying the people’s aspirations. “The nation’s heroes fought for independence, willing to sacrifice themselves so that the people would no longer be colonized. But now the people are colonized and oppressed precisely by their own nation,” one student was quoted as saying by detikcom.

The students carried pots and pans to symbolize their solidarity with the people’s suffering. They remained at the cemetery until late afternoon despite a heavy shower of rain.

Separately, West Sumatra Governor Gamawan Fauzi said that on behalf of his province’s people, he and the local government rejected the fuel price increases.

Bali: Not Much
In the Bali capital of Denpasar, about 20 students grouped in the Front of the Struggle for Democracy for the People (Frontier) rallied on the street outside their campus at Udayana University, causing traffic congestion.

Meanwhile, Bali Governor I Dewa Made Beratha met with the local head of state oil and gas company Pertamina to request a ban on sales of fuel to people trying to fill jerry-cans, saying the move would help to prevent stockpiling.

Still in Bali, police arrested two suspected fuel hoarders because they failed to produce relevant ownership documents. The first suspect, I Made Swastika (36) from Mekar Buana village, was caught with seven drums of premium gasoline and 1.5 drums of kerosene. The second suspect, I Kadek Petresna (41) from Denpasar, was caught with a tanker truck containing more than 5,000 liters of premium gasoline.

Other Cities
Antara reported that hundreds of students in Yogyakarta blocked a street outside the Gedung Agung presidential palace for over 20 minutes before police dispersed them.

Protests also occurred in the East Java cities of Surabaya, Kediri and Jember, as well as in Pekanbaru, the capital of Sumatra’s Riau province. One report said demonstrators in Kalimantan blocked roads with burning tires.

Sumber : (Roy Tupai) Paras Indonesia 

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