Conservative Muslims protest Indonesian fuel price hikes

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JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Hundreds of conservative Muslims marched in Indonesia’s capital on Monday demanding that the government revoke its decision to raise fuel prices, saying it hurts people already reeling from the economic impact of the pandemic.

Authorities blocked streets leading to the Presidential Palace as the demonstrators, many wearing white Islamic robes, filled a major thoroughfare. Many waved red and white national flags and flags bearing the Islamic declaration of faith.

Prices of gasoline and diesel fuel jumped by about 30% last month after President Joko Widodo’s administration cut fuel subsidies to reduce the country’s multibillion-dollar budget deficit. The price of gasoline rose from about 51 cents to 67 cents per liter and diesel fuel from 35 cents to 46 cents.

Protests against the increases have been held across Indonesia, mostly by students and workers, but calm had largely returned to Jakarta, the capital, over the past three days before Monday's demonstration.

The protest was organized by a conservative Muslim alliance that held mass demonstrations in 2016 against Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, that led to him being imprisoned for blasphemy.

In a speech, Ahmad Khozinudin, a protest coordinator, condemned the government’s decision. He said people were already suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic and the price hikes would further increase their woes.

Widodo's government "has failed in dealing with poverty in this country,” he said, standing on top of a truck. “Instead, he has lied to the people by breaking his promise not to increase fuel prices.”

Protesters chanted “God is great” and “We stand with workers” near the blocked roads.

“The government decision to cut the energy subsidy and raise fuel prices is unfair!” said Budi Darma, a protester. “The increase in fuel prices will trigger hikes in other prices, especially the price of basic foods which have a direct impact on the poor.”

Several hundred workers and students also staged protests on Monday near the heavily guarded Presidential Palace.

Widodo said the decision to increase fuel prices was his last option because the government's energy subsidies had tripled this year from 152 trillion rupiah ($10.2 billion) to 502 trillion rupiah ($33.8 billion) because of rising global oil prices and the weakening of the Indonesian rupiah currency.

The government has announced an additional 24.2 trillion rupiah ($1.6 billion) aid package for 20.6 million poor families and workers through the end of the year to cushion the impact of the fuel price increases.

The government has subsidized fuel for decades in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Fuel prices are a politically sensitive issue that can trigger other price hikes and possible mass protests. In 1998, an increase in fuel prices sparked riots that helped topple longtime dictator Suharto.