Newly Jobless -- and Newly Angry -- Threaten Indonesia's Stability
by Seth Mydans
JAKARTA, Indonesia -- One by one, most of
Minarsih's friends at an electronics factory here were taken
aside and quietly fired. Too ashamed to tell her, they simply
disappeared, returning to the villages they had left years ago in
search of fortune in the big city.
Minarsih's turn came a few days ago, and she too left without good-byes, one of the latest victims of an economic disaster that is expected to see millions of Indonesians lose their jobs in the coming months.
"All I could think of was my son: How will I feed him now?" said Minarsih, who is 25. Four years ago, like countless other rural people, she fled the poverty of her village, leaving her son with her parents and sending home part of her pay to help support them.
This week, defeated in her hopes for a better life, she boarded a train for the 12-hour journey home to Surabaya, in eastern Java, part of an ebb tide after a decade of surging prosperity for the 200 million Indonesians.
The government fears these newly unemployed, a growing mass of suffering and angry people who could rise up in violent protests and shake its hold on power. The country's economic crisis has become a political threat.
Over the last 18 months, Indonesia has seen dozens of riots across the country, protesting everything from land seizures to police abuse. Several small riots have broken out in recent days over increases in food prices and perceptions of price-gouging. The disturbances were seen first in eastern Java, and by late Tuesday they had spread to within 350 miles of Jakarta. Small protests and strikes have also been staged at factories over wages and working conditions.
The government is bracing for the possibility of a violent reaction when, as part of its austerity program, it ends price subsidies for beans, sugar and flour on Sunday and for fuel and electricity on April 1.
The Surabaya train was hot and noisy and packed with travelers joining a vast annual exodus of city dwellers heading home for Id al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of the Muslims' holy month of Ramadan.
But this year is different. Like Minarsih, many people boarding the train had lost their jobs and would not be returning when the holiday is over. They will remain in villages that are already deep in poverty, sharing with their families the coming privation.
Their hardships will be compounded by the worst drought in 50 years, which has caused crops to fail across Indonesia and is now bringing catastrophic flooding as heavy rains hit some areas.
Indonesia's falling currency, failing banks and huge foreign debt have caused panic in financial markets and among economists from Washington to Tokyo who fear a worldwide economic crisis.
Here at home, the crisis has already cut into the lives of millions of people, forcing up the prices of rice and cooking oil and milk and electricity, and shrinking the value of the money they can no longer afford to save.
Officials and labor leaders say they expect 2 million people or more to lose their jobs in the coming year, in addition to the 4.4 million already unemployed and the millions more who live hand to mouth with part-time work.
And the number of unemployed could rise even higher. More than 2 million people leave school and enter the work force each year, and with most economists predicting a deep recession, only a few of these may be able to find work.
The fear is that deepening hardship will bring a wave of riots.
Over the years, the highhandedness of the government and its favoritism toward wealthy business executives has mostly been tolerated because life in Indonesia grew steadily more comfortable. But after 32 years in power, President Suharto has begun to lose the support of much of the middle class and there is growing talk of change, though he is expected to be anointed by an obedient legislature to a new five-year term in March.
Mass protests, violence and an overreaction by security forces -- such a chain of events could turn even the elite against him. Much of the violence in recent months in this largely Muslim country has been directed at the Chinese minority, who are seen as economically privileged, and at Christians.
Senior military officials said this month that they are ready to quell any violence, and some 14,000 troops are being deployed in Jakarta to maintain order during holidays.
"We cannot underestimate the frustration of our own people," said Amien Rais, a Muslim leader who has become a leading critic of the government. "They look friendly, they look innocent, they look patient, but all of a sudden they transform themselves into tigers and do very destructive things."
Minarsih, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, seems typical. "I was sad when I lost my job," she said, "but I was really angry, too. I was angry, but I didn't show it. I've been working there for four years. I've done my job. I was never in trouble. So how can they just let me go?"
Like other economy-class passengers, she had received a 70 percent discount -- to about 20 cents -- on her ticket home as part of a government effort to clear the capital of its new mass of restive unemployed. But the city's deepening poverty may be thwarting this plan: Some of Jakarta's poorest people say they cannot afford even 20-cent tickets home.
The train to Surabaya was a sort of Noah's ark of the city's disadvantaged: jobless factory workers, market vendors, food-stall operators, part-time security guards, day laborers, bus-fare collectors, newsboys and purveyors of plastic bottles of water to motorists stalled in traffic jams.
As the train waited to depart, vendors filled the aisles selling washcloths, baseball caps, small packets of tissues, mock-leather wallets and rubber monkey masks.
Feeding her 3-month-old baby with bits of mashed banana, Surateni, 27, squeezed onto a crowded seat, her belongings at her feet in a cardboard box tied with pink plastic string.
She was bringing a cluster of rambutans -- the only gift she could afford -- to the two sons waiting for her in her village. The price of rambutans, small clusters of fruit, has tripled in recent days.
The rising prices have all but eliminated the livelihood that supported Surateni, who fries and sells catfish at a market stall in central Jakarta. Both rice and cooking oil have doubled in price, she said, reducing her daily profit to 5,000 rupiah, or less than 40 cents at the latest exchange rate.
She has cut the portions of food she serves her customers, she said, but if prices rise any more -- as they will with the austerity planned by the government -- she will have no profit.
Surateni already lives at the bottom of the economic scale, so she is prepared for hardship. "We'll find a way to survive," she said. "We don't have any choice."
Copyright (c) 1998 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission