Posted by: mel | May 12, 2009

Eleven years after the May riot: We have not forgotten

Maesy Angelina and Ricky Gunawan ,  JAKARTA   |  Tue, 05/12/2009 10:08 AM  |  Opinion

On this day (May 12) eleven years ago, Indonesia witnessed the killing of four Trisakti University students in an incident known ever since as the Trisakti Tragedy. This horrific tragedy was soon followed by an appalling riot.

A national and international audience watched the national tragedy on television, but the terror was much closer to Indonesian hearts. The killing triggered nationwide protests, which eventually forced Soeharto to step down from his 32-year dictatorial rule.

As Indonesians of Chinese descent that lived in a Chinese neighbourhood, we witnessed our parents and neighbours attempt to defend us by raising barricades around the complex as we felt the panic rising as the riots moved closer to our area. The fear was not just that our houses would be raided and scorched, but that Chinese women and girls would be brutally raped and that the men would be violently attacked.

The phone rang constantly – either from relatives asking whether we are safe or from neighbours warning that the rioters were nearing. We were lucky though, as the closest riot took place a few hundred meters away from where we lived. However, not all Indonesian Chinese citizens were that lucky.

Many people disappeared. Hundreds of houses and commercial buildings were burnt down and thousands of people lost their livelihoods. Worse, it has been estimated that thousands of people were killed during the three-day riot.

Hundreds of women were victims of extreme sexual violence. Those who were not directly affected suffered vicarious trauma and many fled Indonesia.

It took a while for the government to respond. It commissioned a fact finding team, which released its report in October 1998. The report acknowledged that the above atrocity took place, that a majority of victims were Chinese Indonesians and that the number of victims was not verifiable.

Both of us were teenagers back then, yet the tragedy has remained with us and to a certain degree influenced the paths we chose in our lives. Now that we are young adults who understand what human rights are, we want to ensure justice is served. We want the state provide reparations for the victims and see the perpetrators dealt with. Unfortunately, this has not happened yet.

Only two of the eight recommendations presented by the fact finding team have been addressed by the state. The ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Convention against Torture, as well as the passing of victims and witness protection law and the subsequent establishment of the agency are indeed progressive steps.

The support for the formation of the National Commission on Violence against Women is also appreciated. Even so, these things did not directly address the tragedy itself.

Direct recommendations, including a commission for the further investigation of the incident and the establishment of a database for victims have not been properly followed-up. Moreover, the two most crucial recommendations of prosecuting alleged perpetrators and providing remedy for victims have been blatantly ignored.

Some of the alleged perpetrators have been named in the report yet none of them have been effectively brought to the court. This clearly signifies the absence of the state’s good will to resolve human rights violations. If the state fails to comply with its obligations, it is crucial for society to take action.

While civil society has tirelessly urged the state to fulfil its obligations, it is essential public amnesia of the tragedy is actively prevented. Campaigns against amnesia on the issue are of the utmost importance. The fact that alleged perpetrators even gained significant support 
in this year’s legislative election show that the public is either uninformed or does not care enough to ensure that those responsible are held accountable.

Initiatives such as the annual candlelight vigils or the weekly Silent Thursday (Kamisan), which are relentlessly attended by the families of the victims, are good examples of what have been done. But more importantly, advocacy for the inclusion of the May 1998 tragedy into the national educational curriculum is urgently needed to raise the awareness among younger generations.

We hope that voters do not to vote for alleged perpetrators who are running in the forthcoming presidential election. Casting your vote for such candidates would send a message to the state that the public does not consider the trial of alleged human rights violators important. Aside from condoning impunity, this also poses the threat of having human rights violation reoccurring in the future.

We consider this piece not mere opinion, but a principal message worthy of being spread by any means possible to as many people as possible. Those who survived, witnessed and remember the tragedy bear the responsibility to say never again – or nunca mas, as the Argentinians say.

We shall not forget, we shall not forgive — until justice is achieved.  

Maesy Angelina is a feminist, youth activist and development worker. 
Ricky Gunawan is a human rights activist and has an interest in the issues of civil and political rights.

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