Last October a crowd rampaged through the East Java town of Situbondo. The day after Christmas, another riot burst over the West Java town of Tasikmalaya. Over the New Year, inter-ethnic fighting spread out from the West Kalimantan town of Sanggau Ledo and raged for months. Riots had happened before, and they happened again after this, but the trio Situbondo-Tasikmalaya- Sanggau Ledo had become a watchword for anxiety.
It was worth making a visit just to listen in on this anxious conversation. First to Jakarta, where skyscrapers a few hundred metres away appear in a blue haze, and where you meet the most interesting people.
Asmara Nababan, of the National Commission on Human Rights, had visited Kalimantan and he told me of the history of violent ethnic strife there.
Gus Dur, the amiable leader of Nahdatul Ulama, looked at me through his coke-bottle glasses and said straight out the two Javanese riots were a plot by Islamic rivals and their friends in the army to make NU look like religious fanatics.
So these were the two poles - 'tinder-box', explosion-from- below theories that saw Indonesian society as boiling with suppressed anger, and 'conspiracy' theories, possibly from above, in which provocateurs fished in troubled waters for political advantage. Which was closer to the truth?
To Bandung by train, and then on to Tasikmalaya. This clean country town lies at the foot of the magnificent volcano Galunggung, which went off so spectacularly in 1982. Friends took me to see the blackened shells of shops. The vile anti-Chinese graffiti had mostly been painted over.
It started with anger over the way a policeman had treated a teacher at an Islamic school - a pesantren. Tasikmalaya has more than ten times as many pesantren as secular government schools, and Islamic solidarity runs strong. The policeman's son was a student at one. When the boy was punished for stealing, daddy got mad. With several of his mates, he beat the daylights out of the teacher at the town's main police station. Fearing a backlash, the police chief rushed to make amends, but it was too late. Rumours spread the teacher had died.
Angry discussions were held, some led by students long active in social justice issues such as land and pollution. When they decided to hold a public prayer meeting at the town's main mosque, police and military officials thought this could be a good thing to defuse tension, and they agreed to come.
The prayer meeting was loud. Just as it was ending, the overflow outside the mosque shouted 'Allahu Akbar, God is great!', and took off into the streets. Police cowered in fear as the crowd set their offices alight. Economic targets were next - including a supermarket, banks, and Chinese-owned shops. And churches. Military reinforcements did not arrive till the evening. By then not only Tasikmalaya, but several towns in the vicinity were burning, and four people were dead.
Next stop Surabaya, in East Java, base for an excursion to Situbondo. Flying the length of Java in a Fokker F-28 during the wet season is a white-knuckle experience. We bounced up through layer after layer of cloud and never saw blue sky.
Tasikmalaya may have been an outburst of accumulated anger over crooked police, and over the economic marginalisation of the bulk of the population. In Situbondo by contrast the anger appeared to be purely religious. Situbondo too is deeply religious. Again, what started as an Islamic dispute ended up lashing out at outsiders.
A certain religious teacher, a kiai, had got upset over the convictions of a relative of his, Saleh, who taught at the same mosque. Against the advice of other kiai in town, he took Saleh to court for insulting Islam. Every court session became more unruly, as angry crowds demanded Saleh be put to death.
When at the fifth court session on 10 October the prosecutor demanded only five years jail (the maximum allowed), the crowd began to hurl rocks at the court house, leading to panic within. Everyone, including Saleh, escaped out the back door, through a fence and across the river. Soon the court house was in flames.
Simultaneously, and this is the strange part, a very flashy Pentecostal church a couple of hundred yards away burst into flames. The cry went up that Saleh had been hidden in a Christian church (untrue), and rioters set off on a procession around town systematically torching every church they could find, twelve of them. A family of five was incinerated in one. Later, trucks drove east and west and burned another fifteen.
Actually, local onlookers said, only a few dozen were doing the burning, and no one recognised them. Even more strangely, before flinging in the Molotov cocktails, they removed portraits of President Suharto and handed them reverently to police standing by. This, and the fact that all churches in Situbondo were destroyed in the efficient time span of only four or five hours, led many to believe these were not 'ordinary' rioters but military men, perhaps from Malang. Someone within NU later drew up an unofficial 'White Book' on the Situbondo event setting out the evidence for this military conspiracy.
As in Tasikmalaya, local soldiers were too few to risk a confrontation. Troops from out of town arrived when the party was over. They did catch a few young people just east of Situbondo.
West Kalimantan was a total change. From the air, forests as far as the eye can see, cut by brown rivers. Its capital Pontianak is an acquired taste. It is named after a baby- snatching witch. Military roadblocks made it impossible to get close to the war up country from Pontianak. But there were plenty of people to talk to.
And war it was, perhaps still. Migrants, not only from Madura, have been coming to Kalimantan especially since the 1970s amidst a resource boom. For some reason Madurese have had more conflicts with the indigenous Dayaks than anyone else. Ethnic stereotyping plays a role. Dayaks dislike the supposed Madurese love of knives. Yet they make up less than 10% of the province's 4 million people, as against the Dayak 40%. They are not wealthy - small-time farmers, or day labourers in town.
It started at a Golkar music festival near the small town of Ledo around midnight on 29 December. A fight between Madurese and Dayak youths over a girl, resulting in two Dayaks rushed to hospital with knife wounds. Rumours spread they had died.
Next morning a militant crowd arrived outside the police station. Efforts to contain Dayak anger proved increasingly futile. By New Year's Eve thousands of youths were rampaging all over the district screaming 'Out with the Madurese' and burning down houses. These were empty because the Sanggau Ledo military had evacuated their inhabitants to the local air strip for their own safety, remembering similar incidents in the past.
It becomes difficult to reconstruct what happened next. Journalists were forbidden access, especially after violence flared up anew early in February. Stories circulate of frenzied Dayaks shot down as they tried to overwhelm military posts sheltering Madurese refugees. Of Madurese men, too ashamed to report as refugees, fleeing into the jungle only to become easy prey for Dayak hunters. Of Dayak headhunting practices being revived. Authorities feared vengeful feelings might explode in Java and Madura.
Officials by the end of February acknowledged two or three hundred dead. Independent sources spoke of over a thousand, or even several thousand, mostly Madurese.
Culprits and conspirators
So is Indonesia really a tinder-box? There is no doubt that tourist-brochure images of a peaceful Indonesia prizing harmony are an ideal at best. Anger over the social inequalities, cronyism and authoritarianism of the New Order has been building. And bigotry and fanaticism are rife.
Tasikmalaya was perhaps a classic case of economic resentment expressed through anti-Chinese rage. West Kalimantan may have translated Dayak anger about their loss of the forests to outsiders. Even Situbondo, with its suspicious-looking rioters, gave vent to real anti-Christian prejudice within the community.
Yet interested parties still start the violence, or fail to stop it when they can. That's where conspiracy theories come in.
So who did it? A cynic is tempted to say: anyone but those actually jailed for it.
In Tasikmalaya four students were declared the 'master minds', and now face subversion charges. Their main crime predated the riot - making a nuisance of themselves by talking (peacefully!) about the social distortions caused by economic change.
In Situbondo, the main suspect was beaten to death in custody. He was a young Muslim ascetic long known as a crusader against military-backed village gambling.
We do not yet know the identities of suspects detained in Kalimantan, nor have the authorities named culprits there.
Perhaps none of the conspiracy theories make much sense. Perhaps they tell us more about the mutual suspicions that now envelop the top echelons as Suharto's rule nears its end.
One thing, however, is not in doubt. The single most interested player in these events is Abri. As fear grips middle Indonesia, the Abri argument that Indonesia is 'not yet ready' for democracy is gaining reluctant adherents.
A historical precedent for conspiracy in precisely this quarter is there. In 1966 General Suharto told the ailing President Sukarno he could not control student demonstrations without enhanced powers.
Gerry van Klinken edits 'Inside Indonesia'. Human Rights Watch Asia will soon issue a detailed report on the events described here.