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Thousands of Angry Indonesians Gather to Protest Rising Fuel Prices

JAKARTA — Thousands of protesters gathered across Indonesia this week calling on the government to reverse its first subsidized fuel price hike in eight years, pledging to continue demonstrations until President Joko Widodo meets their demands.

The government this week deployed thousands of police officers to control crowds and guard gas stations across the country of 270 million. On Thursday, university students in the capital Jakarta clashed with police and burned tires outside the presidential palace. In the city of Bengkulu, police fired water cannons and tear gas on students on Tuesday, injuring five.

The union activists, workers and students protesting want to reverse a 30 percent increase in subsidized fuel prices announced last Saturday, an increase many believe is necessary but remains highly unpopular in the Southeast Asian country.

While the protests have been largely peaceful, they come at a sensitive time for Mr Joko, who traveled the world to meet world leaders ahead of the Group of 20 summit, due to take place in Bali later this year.

“If there is no response within a week, if the government still doesn’t care and is still deaf and blind to the suffering of the people, the students all over Indonesia will be ready to protest in much greater numbers,” Muhammad Yuza Augusti, a student at Bogor Agriculture Institute, screamed into a microphone on a rainy Thursday.

Many analysts say Mr Joko is likely to emerge from the protests unscathed, as he can blame the price hike on the war in Ukraine. Polls show that Mr Joko has an approval rating of about 68 percent, affected to some extent by his decision to raise cooking oil prices earlier this year.

Yunarto Wijaya, executive director of Charta Politika, a polling station in Indonesia, said the government should be able to push through the increase without much difficulty. He pointed out that protests have been relatively mild so far and shares have surged after Mr Joko announced the price increase. “To me, there is no indicator that shows a social blow on a large scale,” said Mr Yunarto.

Still, the government may have reason to be concerned.

No topic in Indonesia is more politically sensitive than the rise in fuel prices. In 1998, after President Suharto raised prices by 71 percent, violent protests resulted in the deaths of 1,200 people and forced him to resign. Other leaders that followed tried to raise prices but then pulled back in the face of the turmoil.

Last Saturday, Mr Joko, often referred to as “Jokowi” in Indonesia, told the nation in a televised speech that he had no choice but to raise prices, and that his government had already “did its best” to keep them. down.

Protesters say the move hurts the poor at a time of inflation and with the country still struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Government funding of $10 a month until the end of the year for the poor is not enough to cushion the blow, they say.

Ten percent of Indonesians — about 27 million people — live below the official poverty line of $141 a month for a family, and can’t afford to pay more for motor fuel or public transportation. Inflation stood at 4.7 percent in August, from 4.9 percent in July, the highest in nearly eight years.

For decades, Indonesians have paid some of the lowest rates in the world for gasoline — the equivalent of about $2 a gallon — thanks to a government subsidy program launched in the 1960s under President Sukarno. But rising oil prices worldwide have tripled the country’s energy subsidies this year to $34 billion.

Mr Joko had promised not to raise fuel prices until the end of the year. On Sunday, he acknowledged that car owners had received more than 70 percent of the subsidies, rather than the underprivileged. He said the government is determined to shift some of its fuel subsidy funds towards “more targeted aid.”

“The government has to make decisions in difficult situations,” he said.

Some analysts have argued that Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, has kept fuel prices artificially low for too long and that the subsidies should be spent on infrastructure projects and public works. Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesia’s finance minister, said current energy subsidies could be used to build thousands of hospitals, schools or roads.

Even with the rise in fuel prices, government spending on energy subsidies will increase this year, according to Mrs Sri Mulyani.

But the protesters do not believe in the government’s argument.

“The increase in fuel prices proves that the government does not care about the people, but only about the national strategic projects,” said Supriadi, a protester from Jakarta’s State Polytechnic, who, like many Indonesians, bears one name.

Bhima Yudhistira Adinegara, director of the Center of Economics and Law Studies, a research institute in Jakarta, said part of the government’s $27 billion infrastructure budget could have been used for fuel subsidies this year. He also criticized the government for not delaying the construction of a new capital in Borneo, a project expected to cost about $32 billion.

Mr Joko wants to be seen as “the father of development”, said Mr Bhima.

Few Indonesians, especially the middle class, support infrastructure projects such as moving the capital, especially when faced with high inflation, Mr Bhima said. The rise in the price of fuel can harm production, investment and employment. “Social unrest is imminent,” he said.

The protesters have vowed to continue demonstrating outside the presidential palace. On Thursday, although many of them were packing to comply with a law requiring protests in Indonesia to end by 6 p.m. daily, they were still handing out posters for future rallies.

On the wall of a half-finished subway station near the presidential palace, a protester left a simple graffiti message for the president: “Jokowi fails.”

Dera Menra Sijabat reported from Jakarta and Sui-Lee Wee and Muktita Suhartono from Bangkok.