Forced evictions start
with the 'f' sound

Anissa S. Febrina, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Jakarta may be almost half a millennium old, but when it comes to fire it is nothing more than a child whose fascination with burning stuff started at an early age.

But in a city where more than 300 fires break out every year, there are many reasons for playing with fire.

Fire has become Jakarta's most ""pragmatic"" method of urban renewal. It is considered a ""social approach"" to wiping out the unwanted, activists and sociologists say.

During the Idul Fitri holiday, fire destroyed four houses in Central Jakarta's Kebon Melati. The three blackened outer walls of one of the houses -- all that was left behind -- provide a stark contrast to the imposing trade center standing behind them.

""We have been offered compensation for leaving the area several times, but are yet to come to an agreement,"" said Sholeh, a resident of the desolate neighborhood unit that has ""spoiled the view"" of Jakarta City Center.

The project's management, however, has denied any relation between the ongoing construction and the fire.

Revisiting a fire-ravaged market in South Jakarta's Melawai compound gives one a pretty good idea of what the squatter settlement in Kebon Melati will come to look like.

The fire, which occurred in late August 2005, claimed the life of firefighter Subandi and razed several old blocks of Melawai market.

Surrounded by the makeshift stalls of traders from the old market, the site is on its way to becoming a mix-used area consisting of a hotel, apartments and a shopping center.

Interviewed after last year's fire, Prabowo Soenirman, the president director of city market operator PD Pasar Jaya, initially denied vendors' claims the market was going to be redeveloped, as well as any link between the fire and the project.

And the list goes on: In January 2003, 111 kiosks in Senen Market in Central Jakarta were destroyed by fire. The Senen area is currently being redeveloped. In February 2003, fire razed 2,200 kiosks in Southeast Asia's largest textile market, Tanah Abang in Central Jakarta.

Two years later, a 14-story air-conditioned modern market stands on the site.

Forensic investigation of fires like those in Tanah Abang and Melawai generally state the cause and origin as a short circuit, or ""unknown"".

Occurring mostly in densely populated or slum neighborhoods, where the presence of short circuit faults in electrical cables or cords is a latent fire hazard, or in old marketplaces where fire safety systems are substandard, such a conclusion might be justified.

But they are also tools for urban planning and evictions and thus reflect conflicts between different actors in the control and use of urban space, Jerome Tadie of the Institute for Development Research in France said.

Fires involve actors ranging from the government to the inhabitants and less formal intermediaries, he added.

National Police Headquarters' physics forensic investigator Adj. Comr. Darmawan said investigation results indicated a very small percentage of fires were caused by short circuits.

This contrasts with Jakarta Fire Department data, according to which almost 70 percent of fires are caused by short circuits.

""We often run into problems investigating fires. The evidence may be incomplete because the building owners have already been in there, salvaging their belongings,"" Darmawan said

Of the 300 fires that are reported each year on average, less than half are investigated, while the cause of the others remains a mystery.

""Fire is indeed an easy way to wipe out an area without being caught as the evidence literally goes up in smoke,"" he said.

Low-cost apartments in the city, for example, are almost always built on sites were squatter settlements were previously burned down.

International Human Rights Watch criticized in its September report the Jakarta administration for the significant number of cases of forced eviction in the city, including those allegedly involving arson.

The report cited Governor Sutiyoso as saying ""these evictions are only to give the people a lesson to respect the law, as legal certainty is one of the major concerns of investors in the capital"".

International human rights law, however, requires that all people are protected against forced eviction, regardless of the absence of land title deeds or legal occupancy.

Many people who occupy land in Jakarta do not enjoy the right to housing because it is not available to them or too costly, the report said.

Sociologist Imam Prasodjo said the city administration's focus on only the legal status of squatters or traders was exactly what prompted its ""pragmatic"" fire approach.

The approach is further justified as the process of acquiring land is often held up by middlemen who cause land values to rise.

""Despite being common knowledge, as long as there is no independent investigation of the cases, they will never be proven arson,"" he said.

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