Sat, 13 May 2000

Nation basks in self-deception

By Martin R. Jenkins

JAKARTA (JP): Today marks the second anniversary of the riots that broke out in the capital on May 13, 1998. More than 1,000 people lost their lives and many more their livelihoods as shops, houses and offices were burned to the ground by uncontrollable mobs hell-bent on causing as much destruction as possible.

Given the sheer scale of the riots and the suffering endured, it would have seemed inconceivable at the time to believe that the government would simply brush the matter aside and confine it to the annals of Indonesian history. But that, unbelievably, is what has happened.

The backdrop of the riots was the Asian economic crisis, which spread to Indonesia in August 1997, eventually resulting in massive currency depreciation and runaway inflation.

This in turn led to massive layoffs and a phenomenal collapse in living standards as the economy went into self-destruct mode. The people's frustrations could no longer be contained, and spurred on by the country's heroic university students, the corrupt New Order regime was eventually overthrown amid scenes of mayhem and anarchy.

The trigger for the riots was the slaying of four Trisakti University students on May 13, 1998. Jakarta then descended into madness for two unforgettable days, in which mobs looted and burned large sections of Jakarta.

Soeharto was soon dethroned. It was not long, however, before people started to ask questions about the riots. How was it possible that rioting on such a scale could occur spontaneously across Jakarta? Who were the young men with shaved heads seen arriving in trucks to incite the masses to riot, only to leave shortly afterwards? Was it true that rapes of ethnic Chinese women had taken place? Who was really behind the riots?

Under pressure from local non-governmental organizations and foreign governments to reveal the truth about the May riots, the Indonesian government set up a broad-based fact-finding team in August 1998 to investigate the causes of the riots and the rapes of ethnic Chinese women.

On Nov. 3, 1998, the team, which included representatives from the government, the Indonesian Military, the police, and non- governmental organizations, released its report. But by this time the momentum had already been lost -- the report had taken too long to produce. Pressure on the government to come clean about the real causes of the riots had abated. In fact, most of the general public in Indonesia never even got to see the report's findings.

The report found three patterns to the riots -- local and spontaneous riots, riots aggravated by provocateurs and those riots that were more obviously deliberately stimulated. The latter, according to the fact-finding team, included involvement by elements of the military. The report also called for Lt. Gen. (ret) Prabowo Subianto and all others involved in the kidnapping of political activists to be brought before a military court.

The investigation team also verified that 85 acts of violence against women had taken place during the riots, including rapes, torture, sexual assaults and sexual harassment, mostly against ethnic Chinese.

Nonetheless, the findings of the team were not addressed by the Habibie administration. There was never any serious intention to bring to justice those responsible for the May riots. Instead, some unfortunate low-ranking police officers who had been accused of shooting the Trisakti students were dragged through the courts to show that "this is a country of law and order". Although Prabowo and friends admitted to kidnapping the students, they managed to find enough excuses to get off scot-free.

Two years on, the truth behind the May riots remains just as unlikely to be revealed, despite the country's commendable progress toward democracy.

Just like the other dark events in Indonesia's recent history, such as the "ninja" killings in East Java, the shooting of Atma Jaya University students in Jakarta, the storming of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) headquarters and the murders of labor activist Marsinah in East Java and journalist Udin in Yogyakarta, the May riots will remain shrouded in a cloak of mystery.

Nothing is ever resolved. Justice is never done. Crimes are never punished. Perhaps it is easier to live in self-deception than it is to face cold hard truths, but that will not be much comfort for those who lost so much two years ago.

The writer is a consultant at an Indonesian company in Jakarta.