Jakarta remains under heavy guard after May unrest

Indonesian police taking a barrage of rocks, fireworks, Molotov cocktails and other projectiles from rioters during a riot outside election supervisory agency Bawaslu's headquarters in downtown Jakarta on May 22. The violence peaked in the evening th
Indonesian police taking a barrage of rocks, fireworks, Molotov cocktails and other projectiles from rioters during a riot outside election supervisory agency Bawaslu's headquarters in downtown Jakarta on May 22. The violence peaked in the evening that day after the Muslim break-fast hour, when rioters returned to Bawaslu at 6.30pm.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

2 retired generals said to be tied to conspiracy to commit treason as police probe continues

"Could history repeat itself?"

That was all Ms Yani (not her real name) was thinking as she stayed glued to the news coverage and social media postings on the riots that broke out in Jakarta late last month.

She told The Straits Times that similar scenes of unrest in Indonesia's capital from more than 20 years ago were replaying vividly in her mind as the fresh violence was unfolding on the city streets over three days from May 21. "I was very afraid the events of May 1998 would happen again," said the Jakarta-born, ethnic Chinese woman.

She was referring to the 1998 uprising against former president Suharto, which led to widespread violence in Indonesia at the time.

Ms Yani, who is in her late 30s, was recounting how riots and interracial clashes then, mostly targeted at Indonesian Chinese communities in Jakarta, led her father to send her away to Singapore.

Fortunately for Indonesia, the police managed to quell the latest spell of unrest, and prevented it from escalating into a national emergency.

Nearly two weeks after the riots in Jakarta, armed police and soldiers remain on high alert as Indonesians prepare to mark the end of Ramadan.

  • >450

  • Number of rioters arrested so far. Among them were domestic militants loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said the police.

 
 
 
 

'WAR ZONE'

The capital Jakarta had been on edge for weeks following the April 17 presidential polls, with detractors of incumbent President Joko Widodo announcing plans for a "people power" movement to protest against his impending re-election.

The police had also warned of possible terror attacks during the street rallies set to be held on May 22, the deadline for the General Elections Commission (KPU) to release the official vote count.

In a move that was likely made to pre-empt the protests, the KPU announced the election results after midnight on May 21.

Later that day, supporters of Mr Joko's rival Prabowo Subianto mounted a street rally in front of election supervisory agency Bawaslu, in a bid to pressure it to nullify the KPU results, which saw the President win the election with 55.5 per cent of the votes to Mr Prabowo's 44.5 per cent.

The demonstration went on peacefully outside the downtown headquarters of Bawaslu. The Prabowo supporters would later disperse on their own by around 9pm but, two hours later, a separate group of about 400 showed up and began to provoke the police in Jalan M.H. Thamrin, where Bawaslu is located.

Another mob appeared in nearby Tanah Abang, followed by other clashes in places like Petamburan and Slipi in West Jakarta as dawn approached. The unrest would stretch into much of the next day, with pockets of violence emerging in different parts of the city.

In response, the police beefed up their force to 58,000 men from 40,000 a day earlier, and started using water cannon, tear gas and other riot-control measures.

The violence peaked in the evening of May 22 after the Muslim break-fast hour, when rioters returned to Bawaslu at about 6.30pm.

Many people on the sidelines of the stand-off witnessed a loose gang of provocateurs hurling rocks, fireworks, Molotov cocktails and other projectiles at the police as they stood in riot-control formation.

The snap of gun shots, explosions from firecrackers, the smell of tear gas, and smoke billowing from fires set by rioters quickly transformed the area into a war zone as the police moved in neutralise the mob.

Most who were near the scene of the confrontation outside Bawaslu were spotted with a yellowish paste spread above their cheekbones.

"Apply this, for the tear gas," a stranger offered the team from The Straits Times covering the riot.

It was Odol, a Dutch brand of toothpaste that locals discovered would help counter the effects of tear gas used by riot police.

 
 

DELIBERATE PLOT

Indonesia managed to avert a national crisis as the police dispersed the remnants of the rioters by May 23. All eyes are now on the police as investigations, to uncover what they say was a conspiracy to wreak havoc in the country, continue.

Indonesia's Chief Security Minister Wiranto said "paid thugs" were behind the unrest. Some of the rioters arrested in the aftermath had envelopes containing cash of 200,000 rupiah to 500,000 rupiah (S$48).

Over 450 rioters have been arrested so far, with domestic militants loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria among them, police said.

Last Monday, six new suspects were identified by the police, three of whom were allegedly paid to assassinate state officials - a plot also aimed at destabilising the country.

Two former generals are linked to the conspiracy to commit treason, including a former Special Forces commander who is accused of placing snipers to take out protesters at the May 22 rallies to spark the street violence, said Tempo magazine.

The other is former Army Strategic Reserve Command chief Kivlan Zen, who was arrested last Wednesday over a firearm offence, but he too could face treason charges.

Police Inspector-General Mohammad Iqbal said investigators have established the identity of the mastermind of the unrest, but declined to elaborate.

"We are digging deeper into the case and will provide updates later," he added.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2019, with the headline 'Jakarta remains under heavy guard after May unrest'. Print Edition | Subscribe