Lt. Col. Sugeng Margono has lent a hand to civilians before. During his two and a half decades in Indonesia's Army, he has fixed bridges and helped flood victims. But this year marks the first time he's ever been ordered to sell rice.
From ancient times, Asian leaders and governments have known that they must provide their people with the fluffy white grain if they are to rule in peace. To forget this simple truth is to risk riot and rebellion.
Here, along the southeastern coast of the Indonesian main island of Java, rice is no mere substitute for potatoes or pasta. It is the centerpiece of every meal and nearly every farmer's main crop.
That is why Colonel Margono is distributing rice in the town of Trenggalek and the surrounding region, the area he presides over as military commander. The soldier has proof that the people have enough to eat. "The situation is very, very stable," he says.
Margono's newest responsibility is part of an international effort to keep Indonesia's twin crises - a collapsed economy and an El Nio-inspired drought - from causing famine. The international community's desire to avert starvation and the Indonesian government's wish to tamp down a potential source of political upheaval have combined to produce, in the words of one Western agricultural expert based in Jakarta, a "well-managed disaster."
This week UN agencies announced they were putting together an emergency food-aid package for Indonesia and on Wednesday the World Bank convened a meeting in Washington of donor countries and international aid groups to discuss ways to ease the humanitarian impact of Indonesia's troubles.
Indonesia's leader, President Suharto, seems to have recognized that pride would go before a fall - probably his. Achieving self-sufficiency in rice has been a satisfying cornerstone of his development efforts, but Mr. Suharto was quick to authorize massive imports to make up for declines in production attributed to the drought. And after riots broke out in roughly 20 Indonesian towns and cities earlier this year, Suharto mobilized the military and civilian bureaucracies to keep food in the shops, prices down, and frustrations placated.
Margono's soldiers operate a store that sells as much as a ton of rice a day at below-market rates and the military intelligence operatives under his command do more than hunt for dissidents. They pass on information about outlying villages with insufficient food supplies to civilian authorities so a truck can be dispatched before hunger turns to unrest.
Even so, the economic crisis in the world's fourth most populous nation is hitting the poor hard. Despite the activities of Indonesia's government, its military, and the global relief and development industry, the reality for villagers and many city dwellers is that inflation has made meat and eggs too expensive, soybeans must be eaten sparingly, and suddenly even rice is a luxury.
THE government's statistics board said yesterday that prices are nearly 40 percent higher than they were a year ago. At the same time, the government has frozen the minimum wage, partly in order to keep employers from going out of business, but the combination of flat incomes and rising prices has put most Indonesians into a maddening squeeze. Unemployment figures are sketchy, but the ranks of the unemployed have swelled as companies idle their factories and postpone new projects.
With students continuing their protests against the government's handling of the crisis and Suharto's 32-year rule, there is a great deal of concern that Indonesia's economic crisis could turn into political and social turmoil. "The emotions of the people haven't climaxed yet, maybe [they will] in three to five months. The key factor is food. People want to eat everyday," says Hardjio, an opposition politician in Trenggalek.
The connection between food and politics is why the International Monetary Fund, now revising its assistance program for Indonesia for the second time, is reportedly giving ground on the question of subsidies for food and fuel. The government is insisting that it be allowed to support the prices of basic necessities in order to preserve stability, and indications are that the fund's negotiators will agree.
Rural Indonesia is known for narrow, terraced rice paddies that cover the hills and ridges of a rugged landscape crowned by volcanoes. But you don't have to be an agriculturist to notice the ubiquitous stalks of cassava, a tall, leafy plant with distinctive red stems that grows along the road and around the paddies and in every spare plot of land.
The sweet variety is used to make tapioca but the root of the bitter cassava grown in the hills around Trenggalek is soaked and milled, then mixed with rice husks and perhaps corn or some small proportion of rice grains, in a preparation called nasi tiwul. The result isn't too bad if you're eating it for the first time - the flavor is nutty and the texture chewy - but villagers say it is a poor substitute that leaves them low on energy.
Recently in a village an hour outside of Trenggalek, a cabinetmaker named Jamari invited visitors into the kitchen to show off what his wife was preparing for the noonday meal: nasi tiwul, some boiled bamboo shoots, and a plate of bitter, garlicky raw beans that take the place of chilies, which have also grown too expensive. The house was similarly straightforward: walls made of unplastered cement and brick, floors of pounded dirt, a place to burn a fire in the corner of the kitchen.
Jamari and his wife have two children who are grown and out of the house, but they are raising a four-year-old nephew. It is for the little boy that rice is necessary, he says.
The commodity is selling at roughly twice what it cost eight months ago, and Jamari makes no mention of official or military efforts to bring cheaper rice to this village. Outside, on the road, pickup trucks piled with cassava root trundle by.
It bears noting that this village is in Java, the politically dominant island of Indonesia. Elsewhere in this great archipelago of a nation, the government is less inclined to take care that the people have enough to eat. In the easternmost province of Irian Jaya, relief agencies say scores of people have died recently from diseases made worse by malnutrition.
Such pockets of want are what most concern agencies like the World Food Program, (WFP) a UN arm that closed up its Indonesian operation just two years ago. Now its economists are back in the country, along with other groups, to plan an emergency food effort. The World Bank estimates that Indonesia will need assistance worth $1.5 billion to $3 billion to cover food, medicine, and other humanitarian needs this year.
Ravi Rajan, the UN's top official in Indonesia, won't put a dollar figure on the emergency food program now being developed, but says it will be "probably" less than $100 million.
The WFP's economists also will not release their estimate for Indonesia's rice shortfall this year, although diplomats in Jakarta say the country will need to import 4 million to 5 million tons of milled rice - more than 10 percent of what the country needs to feed its people - and twice what it imported in the fiscal year that ended Tuesday.