Why Indonesia so often erupts

Yesterday, another killing spree hit Jakarta. Are the Indonesians explosive, or are they being provoked?

"To run amok" is derived from an Indonesian word and has found its way off these islands and into many other languages. But it's not particularly flattering to the Indonesian people, for it represents the notion that they can easily turn into a raging mob.

Events of past months reinforce the stereotype. Riots and killings aimed at religious or ethnic groups have become more common as this Southeast Asian nation copes with severe recession. In May, 1,200 people died in riots that brought down long-time ruler Suharto.

In the latest incident yesterday, at least six people were killed, most members of the country's Christian minority, during clashes in the capital. The spark was a Muslim attack on a gambling hall guarded by RomanCatholics.

In a country where more than half a million people were killed in politically motivated violence in 1965 and 1966, many fear that political and religious strife could tear apart this nation of more than 200 million. The military, which sees itself as the national unifier, may have its work cut out for it.

Mr. Suharto's overthrow has opened the way for dozens of new political parties to spring up and run in general elections next June, the first free polls in four decades.

Many parties may compete on religious platforms, mostly Muslim. About 90 percent of Indonesians adhere to Islam.

Some Indonesians see their hot-tempered nature as the flip side of the geniality they show much of the time, particularly on the main island of Java, where calm is seen as a virtue.

"There is nothing between calm and hopping mad," one Indonesian said recently. "We have not learned to be just a little angry because we try to stay calm."

But recent violence also reveals something that challenges the stereotype: Indonesians may be simply reacting to deliberate provocation.

Earlier this month the government infuriated thousands of students and slum dwellers who were protesting peacefully here by sending in gangs of armed civilians. They were mostly poor men from outside Jakarta, many of whom admitted they were paid to show support for the government of President B.J. Habibie during the meeting of the legislature. After protesters on Nov. 13 fought off the civilian guards, killing three, they turned on the soldiers and riot police.

The soldiers responded with a barrage of gunfire, killing eight. Students, who had been trying to restrain the crowd earlier, were so enraged by the show of force that they started throwing Molotov cocktails and chunks of concrete. The slum dwellers responded by looting shopping centers. By the end of the weekend at least 16 had died.

Many Indonesians now associate their first months of a new-style democracy with bloodshed, including a mysterious killing spree of more than 100 Islamic teachers and sorcerers across the main island of Java.

In Bojong Gede, 30 miles south of Jakarta, Masturo al-Mamuri says he was finishing his midnight prayers one recent evening when two men, dressed in black, allegedly kicked in the door to his prayer room and lashed at him with their sickles. Mr. Masturo is the local kiai, or interpreter of the Koran, and principal of an Islamic high school.

The day after, Achmad Sobari, a farmer, drove into Bojong Gede looking for the local kiai. Villagers immediately took Mr. Sobari for one of the so-called ninjas, the men in black who have been terrorizing villages across Java, killing or maiming more than 100 kiai and tukang santet, practitioners of black magic. Villagers beat Sobari to death.

It is still a mystery who is behind the killings of tukang santet and kiai. The country's two leading Muslim leaders accuse the ruling elite of playing a sinister game to maintain power.

Amien Rais, who resigned as head of an organization of modernist Muslims to run for parliament, accused the army of sowing terror to spark calls for an end to Indonesia's experiment with democracy and the restoration of military rule.

Abdurrahman Wahid, chairman of the largest organization of orthodox Muslims, said government officials were keen to divide the Muslim opposition ahead of the elections. The secular Golkar party, long a loyal instrument of Suharto, could then be free to continue dominating parliament.

Some analysts suggest that at least the first murder spree of tukang santet in eastern Java was spontaneous. Practitioners of magic are often blamed for mishaps such as poor harvests, common during the recent drought.

But political analyst Indria Samego accused some kiai of simulating attacks on themselves to revive lagging support from villagers, including against the tukang santet.

Tukang santet cater to Javanese who mix Islam with Hindu, Buddhist, and animistic beliefs. Kiai represent the more orthodox strand of Muslims.

Religion plays a role in much of the violence, often coloring conflicts that are really political. The government supporters last week donned Islamic headbands and shouted "Allah is great" at student protesters, many of whom are Christian, who want Mr. Habibie to resign but have no religious agenda. "If we're not careful, the election could turn into political anarchy," says Ahmad Syafi'i Ma'arif, a leader of the modernist Muslims. "The tap of democracy was closed tight for so long, and now that it's open wide, people have lost a sense of perspective."

Tough draft laws on elections, which have yet to be passed, would force most of these parties to merge to get the required 1 million signatures. But the survivors are likely to represent at least three rival streams of Islam:

* Nominal Islam, which mixes in pre-Islamic beliefs, will be represented by Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the first president, Sukarno.

* Orthodox Islam, which adopted dogma from Saudi Arabia in the 19th century and is popular in rural areas, will be represented mainly by Mr. Wahid.

* Modernist Islam, which is influenced by later innovations of Islam and appeals to workers and middle class in the cities, is divided, but Mr. Rais will likely get most of the modernist vote.

"These parties may all use the Koran to justify themselves. That could be very dangerous," says Mr. Syafi'i.

Many Indonesians insist that they are much less prone to religious strife than outsiders assume. "Many people are able to tolerate religious differences," Mr. Wahid said last week. "These differences only become a serious problem when their leaders bring them to the surface."

Abdillah Toha, a member of Mr. Rais's party, believes the elections would be peaceful if only the military and other troublemakers would stay out of it.

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