Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point

In Depth

On Air

Low Graphics

Sunday, May 24, 1998 Published at 18:10 GMT 19:10 UK

A city goes mad

'That day a society which never shows its feelings did so with a vengeance'

It has been a turbulent time for Indonesians. The riots, looting and violence of the last couple of weeks claimed over five hundred lives, and thousands of shops and cars were burned and destroyed in the capital Jakarta, and in other cities. The BBC's Asia Correspondent, Matt Frei, has been in Jakarta watching events unfold.

As societies disintegrate into anarchy, it is fascinating to watch how five-star hotels, the citadels of polite behaviour, deal with the deterioration of public manners.

The Mandarin in Jakarta, home to most of the journalists covering this crisis, informed its guests the other day about the imminent chaos with a discreet note written on paper embossed with a golden leaf, the company emblem.

Click here to listen to this report (4' 44")
"As we all brace for a possible escalation in social unrest," the German manager, Jan Gossing wrote, as if informing us about a shortage of smoked salmon, "...the assembly point in case of an emergency is the pool. It would be appreciated if you would turn off the lights in your room and close the curtains."

Downstairs in the lobby Herr Gossing, a tall man with a clipped moustache and a calm air, oversaw the boarding up of the windows like a Prussian officer maintaining decorum in battle. The piano never stopped playing and the sushi kept coming.

Riots with a vengeance

[ image: The road was usually choking with traffic]
The road was usually choking with traffic
Meanwhile, the rest of the metropolis had clearly decided to suspend good manners for the day. Immediately outside the hotel, which is located on a large roundabout with a huge fountain and a hideous sculpture, I saw the scene that summed up the situation for me. The six-lane highway, usually choking with traffic, was completely deserted. Apart from two burnt-out cars lying awkwardly on their side, the only vehicle was a tank.

A massive plume of black smoke rose from behind the Hyatt Hotel owned by one of the President's sons. Thirty-thousand troops were taking up positions in the capital.

The horizon was filled with fires and watching it all was one man, squatting alone in the empty square on the side of the fountain. He was smiling to himself, as if amused by a private joke, and he was completely naked.

[ image: Some of the violence was hard to understand]
Some of the violence was hard to understand
That day a society which never shows its feelings did so with a vengeance, in what was literally an orgy of violence.

I can understand why some of the buildings would have been ransacked - car showrooms belonging to Tommy Suharto, hotels owned by Bambang Suharto, motorway tollbooths franchised by Tutut, the eldest daughter. The billionaire children of the dictator sound like grotesque characters from a J R R Tolkien fable.

But why was the traffic light blinking helplessly on red smashed to pieces by a student of engineering who should have been swotting for his exams? And why did one man take great care to set a pram on fire? And what were those two singed household turtles doing stuck on a poker still wriggling?

We all feel like smashing plates or throwing a brick at the TV set now and again, but when 10 million people do it is truly terrifying.

Why then?

What happened that day? One theory in this country, awash with conspiracies, is that the troops under General Prabowo, Suharto's son-in-law, had encouraged the mob to go wild so that he could blame the mayhem on his sworn enemy, the Chief of Staff, General Wiranto. Another more obvious theory was that people were driven by poverty and by the economic crisis.

Both are probably true but the reason why usually civilised beings got up that morning, brushed their teeth, had breakfast and then sacked a city, their own city, is that the conditions were right for the beast in all of them to come out.

In a society that suppresses all meaningful opposition or opinion and then takes away people's livelihoods in an unprecedented economic crisis, that beast is ferocious.

A man with no friends

[ image: Habibie: 'Became president by default']
Habibie: 'Became president by default'
The task of taming that beast has now fallen to a man so small that he had to stand on a box to give his presidential address - not that size interferes with power, after all Napoleon, Franco and Haile Selassie were all tiny.

But the biggest problem facing Professor Dr Engineer Habibie MA, MSc, PhD, summa cum laude, a trained aircraft engineer with a fetish for academic titles, is that he has no friends.

He became president by default, because the constitution dictated it. Presidents without friends, votes and soldiers either disappear or they get nasty. We wait and see.

But as Mr Habibie was hastily sworn in, his predecessor and patron, Mr Suharto, stood and watched.

I thought I could see a faint smile on the iguana-like face of President Suharto. You think I was bad, he seemed to be saying: just wait.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia

Relevant Stories

21 May 98 | LATEST NEWS
President Suharto resigns

23 May 98 | LATEST NEWS
New president sets out his stall

22 May 98 | LATEST NEWS
Habibie's 'reform' cabinet

21 May 98 | LATEST NEWS
'Total anarchy' in Jakarta

15 May 98 | LATEST NEWS
Suharto's day of reckoning

Internet Links

Government of Indonesia

Mandarin Hotel in Jakarta

Antara - Indonesian state news agency

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

Life and death in Orissa

A return to Chechnya

Belgrade Wonderland

Shame in a biblical land

Zambia's amazing potato cure

Whistling Turks

In the face of protest

Spinning the war Russian style

Gore's battle for nomination

Fighting for gay rights in Zimbabwe

A sacking and a coup

Feelings run high in post-war Kosovo