Indonesia has a food problem. It's not that food isn't available, it's that most people cannot afford the sky-high prices for basic goods, so they are cutting back on how much, and how often, they eat.
Indonesia has a law and order problem. Angry, hungry, and no longer in fear of the authorities, people across the country have been attacking rice mills, looting shrimp ponds and occupying golf courses to plant their crops in the rough. They also have begun confiscating farmlands owned by family members of the deposed president, Suharto.
Indonesia has a growing secession problem. Demonstrations demanding autonomy in East Timor have spread to the country's other independence-minded province, Irian Jaya, and are becoming a source of concern for the government. President B. J. Habibie, Suharto's successor, said in an interview Saturday that he is worried about the possibility that peripheral pressures could split the country, imperiling the stability of the entire Asia-Pacific region.
Two months after Suharto left office in disgrace and Habibie said he would support a move toward democracy, this sprawling archipelago of more than 200 million people appears dangerously close to chaos. The shift from three decades of authoritarianism has unleashed long pent-up passions and frustrations, fueled by a deteriorating economic situation that is causing suffering for great numbers of Indonesians. Looting in East Java has sparked a new exodus of ethnic Chinese merchants fleeing for their lives, and here in the capital some expatriates and wealthy Chinese have started arming themselves for protection.
Meanwhile, the armed forces, which last weekend issued a warning about a crackdown against lawlessness, appears powerless to stop the disorder. The military's credibility has been left in tatters by a torrent of revelations linking rogue military groups to the abduction and torture of democracy activists, the fatal shooting of four students at Trisakti University on May 12, and possibly even the violent riots and the gang rapes of Chinese women on May 14.
That riot, once thought to have been a spontaneous outburst, now appears to have been an orchestrated campaign against the country's ethnic Chinese minority -- which has long served as a scapegoat for Indonesian social problems. Witnesses have told of groups of fit-looking young men arriving in trucks at shopping centers and Chinese-owned stores, shouting anti-Chinese slogans and exhorting local residents to pillage them. At least 168 Chinese women and girls as young as 10 were gang-raped, often in front of their parents, and some were then set ablaze and killed. Some survivors have been sent photographs taken as they were being assaulted, as a form of intimidation.
"It's a Bosnia," said Marzuki Darusman, deputy chairman of the National Human Rights Commission. "It comes out of a page from Yugoslavia." He said the same military units allegedly behind the abductions were probably behind the Trisakti shootings as well, although he said there are no firm links yet to tie those rogue soldiers to the riots and gang rapes, which also were organized with military-style precision.
Gen. Wiranto, commander of the Indonesian armed forces, has been trying to clean house to restore the military's damaged image. Last week, seven members of the elite special forces, Kopassus, were named as suspects in the kidnapping and torture of at least 21 political activists -- a dozen of whom are still missing. And top military officials said their probe might extend all the way to the former Kopassus commander, Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, a son-in-law of Suharto.
With the naming of the seven suspects, "and by implication, Mr. Prabowo, the armed forces have improved their ability to function as a law enforcement organization," Marzuki said. "But the atmosphere is still not completely normal because of the sentiment regarding the Chinese."
While Wiranto is occupied with trying to purge the rogue elements and Prabowo loyalists from the ranks, Indonesians are defying authorities as they attack and pillage farmland, plantations, food warehouses, even golf courses in what many analysts said amounts to a general breakdown of law and order.
Near the city of Bogor, hundreds of farmers have forced their way onto a ranch owned by Suharto, demanding the right to plant their crops there. In Surabaya last week, Indonesia's second-largest city, hundreds of Chinese merchants were forced to flee the country by boat after their shops and warehouses were looted and burned. In Tangerang, just west of Jakarta, thousands of villagers looted a shrimp pond, taunting and throwing mud at policemen who fired only warning shots.
The lawlessness has spread even to the capital, and local media reports say ethnic Chinese and some foreigners living here have been buying firearms on the thriving black market -- despite strict gun control laws -- to protect themselves.
Despite Habibie's claim that he has made progress on reviving Indonesia's economy, the country still appears to be in a free fall. The currency, the rupiah, which stood at 9,500 to the dollar when Habibie took office, has plunged to more than 13,000 to the dollar. About 20 million Indonesians are likely to be out of work this year; inflation is set to reach 100 percent; and at least half the population will sink below the poverty line by year's end.
The currency collapse and spiraling inflation have eroded purchasing power. Since some supplies of such basic foods as rice and cooking oil are imported, their prices in rupiahs have been driven up by the fall of the rupiah's value against foreign currencies. The breakdown of distribution networks, caused by the May riots and attacks on ethnic Chinese merchants have also driven up prices. But poor and moderate-income Indonesians are making the same salaries in rupiahs -- if they have kept their jobs -- meaning that they cannot easily afford the higher prices.
According to relief agency officials and Indonesian economists, there is no widespread hunger in Indonesia as yet, except in a few isolated pockets that traditionally have been hard-pressed. But almost everywhere, including here in the capital, people are altering their diets, eating less, forgoing meat and even fish, and sometimes skipping meals to make ends meet.
"It definitely is getting worse," said Stephen Woodhouse, the Indonesia representative for the United Nations Children's Fund. "It's not a question of a lack of food, but a lack of purchasing power," he said. "It means that almost half the population is suffering from inadequate food intake."
To try to alleviate the problem in the capital, the government has been selling subsidized rice, sugar and cooking oil at lower prices at markets in poor neighborhoods. But many people complain the supplies are inadequate, and the confused distribution system does not ensure that the city's poorest get their share first. One day last week, at the Jatinegara market, workers from Bulog, the state food company, were selling rice from the back of a battered blue truck to a line of people waiting patiently to save at least 500 rupiahs on the subsidized price. But there was a longer line nearby, of housewives who had been waiting hours for half-price cooking oil that never arrived.
Ibu Marhaya, a wrinkled 45-year-old mother of five, arrived at the Jatinegara market at 5 a.m., after walking the three miles from her home. It was her third day making the trek, but by midday, no cooking oil had arrived.
"We have to fight for the half-priced oil because we need the money for other things," she said, adding that she has cut back the number of daily meals in her family to two.
Aid agency officials here worry that a prolonged crisis may have long-term health consequences, particularly for many young children who are not getting the nutrition they need.
An added problem, in rural areas, is that with the exodus of the Chinese merchants, the country's food distribution system has been disrupted -- and in some places, has broken down entirely. Abdurrahman Wahid, the leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, said the return of the Chinese is crucial if the country is to pull out of the crisis.
But it is unclear how eagerly Habibie and his government want the Chinese back. Habibie, in the interview Saturday, said: "If the Chinese community doesn't come back because they don't trust their own country and society, I cannot force them. But do you really think that we will then die? Their place will be taken over by others."