Slash rice prices or quit, Habibie told

Jakarta: Thousands of students marched on Indonesia's presidential palace on Thursday calling on President B.J. Habibie to bring down rice prices or quit as rorts continue.

The students, holding banners saying "The people are hungry" and "We want rice, not Habibie,"  who had gathered at Merdeka Square despite a massive troop presence on the main roads leading to it, dispersed peacefully after the protest.

Lack of rice at subsidised prices is increasing as smuggling and hoarding are on the rise.. Police seized two ships over the weekend at Semarang's Tanjung Emas harbour in Central Java carrying 150 tonnes of rice, which they said was bound for Malaysia.

"The crews are being interrogated and we have seized the ship's documents. The owner of the rice will be questioned soon," said Central Java police chief Major-General Nurfaizi in the Republika daily.

The students marched towards the presidential palace but were blocked by hundreds of troops just about 100m from the building. "Down with Habibie, down with prices," they chanted. It was the first time in the series of political protests this year that students had converged at the square, long considered the symbolic centre of the city.

The protests have flared over the past week as Indonesia's economic crisis threatens to send two-thirds of the country's 200 million-strong population sliding into abject poverty. Millions of people are suffering food shortages and emergency international food aid programmes have begun.

Activist Abdul Rahman said the economic crisis was the students' focus. "We want prices to come down," he said. "This protest is for economic reasons." The students left the Merdeka Square area after four hours. But they said the protests would continue.

"We have already set out an agenda to hold a series of protests in the run up to the special meeting of the people consultative Assembly (MPR) in November," said Abdul Rahman. The MPR, the country's highest legislative body, is due to convene a special session in mid-November to set the agenda for general elections in 1999.

Last week, government officials on the rice-growing island of Sulawesi said rice was being transported to Kalimantan and then taken by truck across the border to Malaysia.

Rice is also reportedly being smuggled out of Central Java, Riau and Medan in Sumatra and Manado in North Sulawesi. The rice is bound for Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. Authorities seized 1,900 tonnes of rice at Jakarta's Sunda Kelapa port as it was being loaded on to a boat bound for Kuching in Malaysia.

"Sea transport lacks supervision because we have few navy ships that can monitor smuggling," said Professor Dibyo Prabowo of the University of Gajah Mada.

Professor Prabowo said rice was smuggled through border towns such as Entikong between Kalimantan and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. "Manado is also known for sending rice to the Philippines because it is so close."

Rice traders are hoarding to speculate on price increases. Police last week arrested 16 people for taking part in an illegal rice-trading syndicate in North Jakarta. In the town of Bekasi, 30km east of Jakarta, police raided a storehouse filled with 100 tonnes of imported rice.

It appears the military was involved in the rice scam. One of the delivery order forms included the name of the Army Primary Co-operative. Workers said their bosses planned to sell the rice at high prices outside Jakarta.

In another controversy, police found 80,000 tonnes of government-owned rice spoiling in a warehouse in North Jakarta. The rice had been kept there for six months, according to Jakarta police spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Aritonang.

Indonesia has imported 3.5 million tonnes of rice this year. It plans to import another 600,000 tonnes by the end of the year.

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