Posted by: mel | May 17, 2009

Remembering May 1998

Jakarta Globe | 15 May 2009 | Titania Veda

It has been 11 years since the bloody riots of May 1998 led to the resignation of then President Suharto. Ethnic Chinese residents and their shops were the particular targets of a surge of violence and arson that left hundreds dead. Most who died were trapped in burning buildings as roving gangs plundered Chinese shops and houses. 

There were reports that the riots — and the systematic rape of ethnic Chinese women alongside them — were allowed and even instigated by elements of the military. Afterward, ethnic Chinese fled Jakarta by the thousands. Here are the stories of five people affected by the rioting.

Astari, 56

Artists, Astari said, have the ability to perceive, interpret and reveal. 

Affected by the harrowing events of May 1998, Astari made a number of politically charged artworks that focused on the victimization of women. 

“I really, really felt angry. How dare they do this to women? Because this was a fight between men and men,” Astari said, “but it is the women who were sacrificed. It made me so mad! And it made me want to put it into my art.”

A sculptural piece incorporates a kebaya blouse and a chastity belt, while a mixed-media wall piece shows a Chinese-Indonesian girl cowering in fear behind a door. On the other side of the door is a hammer dripping with blood. 

“I didn’t think anyone would buy that work. It is not suitable for hanging on a wall,” Astari said of the bloody hammer. 

But her artworks were sold, even with their context of terror.

“In times of terror, we cannot just be fearful. We can live with the beauty that is still around, with the art.”

“Like everybody else, I was confused. What’s going on? I was alone here at the time. I was living in my studio. My children were in the Menteng area. I thought it would be total chaos. I was glad I had my art around me and I had something to put into creation.

“I did a lot of silk-screen printing. I have photos of the situation and I put them in the prints. It was something fast I could produce on paper.” 
— Astari

Sri Palupi, formerly with Volunteers Team for Humanity, 43

“It was irrational and inhumane,” Sri said of the 1998 rioting. 

The volunteers received vivid accounts from eyewitnesses of the involvement of organized groups in the arson attacks. Further investigation verified the stories, and there remained no doubt that the attacks were well-planned, Sri said.

She said the instigators who led the mobs often dressed as students. 

“The aim was to stop the student demonstrations aimed at toppling Suharto, which was why the instigators used school and university uniforms.

Those who died in the mall fires had been looting, official statements declared. But the investigative team found them to be ordinary citizens: brothers, daughters, fathers looking for their children.

“I still remember, 1,190 people died,” Sri said, referring to the team’s detailed list of the dead. But there were discrepancies in the official lists of the dead and injured. 

The police list showed 451 dead, the military list 463 and the Jakarta administration list 288. “This was barbarism,” Sri said. “To feel angry wasn’t enough.” 

She said the victims were frightened of what might happen to them if they testified. 

“Suharto bowed out, but the New Order machine carried on,” Sri said.

The team had gathered enough evidence to make a case, including confessions of guilt. But a powerful third party employed a diversionary tactic to take the spotlight off those cases and onto the rapes. And so the public forgot about the systematic pattern of violence the investigators had exposed.

Sri is convinced this was done on purpose. “It is difficult for advocacy because we will be asked [by the authorities] where is the rape? Where’s the proof?” Sri said.

“My job was to coordinate the data during the civil unrest. The [Volunteer’s Team for Humanity] office received many calls from the field, calls about deaths, violence and cries for help. The atmosphere in the office was one of fear because the terrorism was ongoing. People wanted us to stop the investigation and sheltering the victims.”— Sri Palupi

Marina Katarina Sumarsih, aka Bu Arief, 59

Arief was not a victim of the May 1998 tragedy. Her son, Wawan, a student at Atmajaya University, was one of the victims of the military shootings of November 1998.

Arief clearly remembers the day the May riots broke out. She was working for the Golkar Party at the House of Representatives in South Jakarta.

“I was in the office and could see plumes of smoke rising all over the city — and it was all over the television and radio stations. I saw muscular men dressed in black at Palmerah market [South Jakarta] setting the market on fire — the people running, traders trying to salvage goods.

“When the May incident occurred, I knew little about it. Then in November 1998, my son was shot,” Arief said.

“At first, I didn’t know what to do, but then a desire developed in me to know why my son was killed,” she said.

Arief joined the Volunteers Team for Humanity the following year. For the victims’ families it was the small things that mattered, such as their efforts to prevent Wiranto from winning the 2004 presidential election.

“We, the victims’ families, asked the public not to choose the political party that violated human right laws,” she said. 

The fact that Wiranto’s party didn’t get into the top five that year was a victory for the team.
Arief received the Yap Tiam Hien award for her fight against human rights abuses on Dec. 10, 2004.

The following year, she established the Solidarity Network of Victims and Their Families (JSKK) with Suciwati Munir, widow of human rights activist Munir, and Petjo Untung, a victim of the 1965 coup attempt that brought down President Sukarno. 

Every Thursday between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. for the last two years, members of the group — dressed in black and carrying black umbrellas — have held a silent protest outside the Presidential Palace in Central Jakarta. 

“Bu Ruyati’s son was an English teacher and had not come home the night the riots broke out. Her neighbor was watching television when news broke with the names of the victims who died in the mall fires. Ruyati heard that her son was one of the victims of the Yogya Plaza fire and his body was brought to Cipto Mangunkusumo General Hospital in Central Jakarta. The only reason they knew it was him was because his identity card wasn’t burned. When she came to collect her son’s remains, she only received a bundle of ashes and his identity card. Ruyati often says, ‘even though I visit my son’s grave, I don’t know if all my son’s ashes are intact or if they are with another’s remains.’ ” — Arief

Dr. Lie Dharmawan, cardiovascular and general surgeon at Husada General Hospital, 63 

“May 1998 was not only about the fires, the lootings and the killings,” Lie said. “It was also about the sexual assault of members of a certain ethnic group.”

Social unrest cornered a specific ethnicity, said Lie, who treated four young women who had been sexually assaulted that May. 

At the time, he was unaware of the gravity of the situation. “Sincerely, we just wanted to help, without really knowing what was going on,” Lie said. 

Only later did the surgeon find out there was a “programed effort” to abuse certain groups. 
“Back then, all I felt was compassion and pity,” he said. But when the reality of what occurred that May dawned upon him, Lie was incensed.

“I really want to say that I’m proud to be an Indonesian. I love this country but what happened in May 1998 has made me ashamed,” Lie said.

There were many accounts of rape circulating after the events in May. But evidence was hard to find. Everyone concealed the rapes, Lie said. 

He found people would shut down, unwilling to reveal what had happened to them. It was also difficult to determine whether a victim had been violated because they washed away the evidence.
“Because it was something disgraceful, they washed their private parts as best as they could. So how could we find proof of violation? And it didn’t occur to me that such a thing could have happened!” Lie said.

“These were very young women, only in their teens! 
“One teenager ran for her life, through back alleys and hid in people’s houses, for days. She had stepped on a large shard of glass and by the time she was taken to me, her foot was starting to rot. For days, she bore that fear, her terror outweighing her pain. In that condition she ran and walked for days. She was only about 12 or 13 years old. A runny-nosed kid.” — Dr. Lie


Bu Ruminah, 52

“My son is dead. Because of this tragedy, I lost my son and my economic means,” said Ruminah, whose hairdressing salon in a mall in Klender was also destroyed during the May riots.

The mother of five feels her son, Goenawan, may have died in vain, a victim of a political machine. She has yet to receive compensation from the government for her son’s death. But money is secondary to justice.

“Forget getting compensation! The government hasn’t even admitted its responsibility!” Ruminah said.

With the Solidarity Network of Victims and Their Families (JSKK), she stands before the Presidential Palace every Thursday, along with other mothers and fathers of victims, hoping her silent protest will make a difference.

“Of course I feel sad and cry,” Ruminah said. “But you can’t talk when you cry all the time. And if we just cry and cry, this will never be resolved. I have to be strong, for who else will speak about this, if not us?”

 “I found out at night, at one o’clock. The mosque announced a list of the dead or missing. I went to all the hospitals in Jakarta with a motorbike until I ran out of petrol. And then I walked to the rest. In the morning, they were bodies being taken out of the Klender mall. I didn’t find my son’s body, but his clothes were intact. His belt was there. It seemed he was not burned because if he was, his clothes wouldn’t still be that clean.

“I was confused. Where was my son? But all his friends, all seven of them, died in the fire. A head, a hand or a leg was found. But as for my son, only his clothes were left, and they were still clean.”

— Ruminah, mother of Goenawan R. Subiyanto, who was 12 years old


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