Spew looks back on the May 1998 riots and the issues of mass rapes, anti-Chinese sentiment, and how the rioters came to be judged.
It has been a decade since Reformasi (reform) movement took place in Indonesia that succeeded in forcing Suharto to step down. Every year after the movement, media and political and social analysts reflect on what has happened and has been happening since Suharto was ousted. Since reform is the grand theme, these reflections therefore highlight the progress of reform in Indonesia. Although many topics can be written regarding reformasi in Indonesia only democracy and political reforms are arguably having much more attention than other issues.
Having said this, I would like to shift the focus away from political reforms and democracy and reflect on the riots that took place in Indonesia. The riots shocked the international community and may have changed their views on the Indonesian people. To some extent, the riots may have confirmed the wide representation of Indonesian people as having an amok culture. The friendly, hospitable, and inclusive attitude can suddenly turn into vicious, violent, and barbaric acts. When one of the Bali Bombing perpetrators Amrozi had his picture taken in foreign media, people bewildered with his smile: how can he smile after killing innocent people? There seems no other alternative to explain this perplexing phenomenon but put it into a cultural category box called amok.
Not long after the riots which took place in Solo, Medan, Jakarta, and Surabaya, Indonesians were shocked to know that many people were burnt to death in malls and shopping centres. The government, however, labelled them looters. Quoting the government, media outlets played an important role in perpetuating the representation of people who were burnt to death in malls. In their headlines, looters emerged as a product of discourse on representation of poor people in Indonesia. Labelling them looters instead of victims will impact on how big was the state's responsibility for the dead people. Looters can be equated with criminals and with their deaths, the state should not be responsible for dealing with criminals.
Labelling them looters also denies the history of well-being of the poor in Indonesia. These "looters" are victims of structural violence stemming from unfair economic development. According to a report released by Jakarta based non-governmental organisation, Volunteer Team for Humanity, the total death toll was about 1200 people Tim Gabungan Pencari Fakta Kerusuhan 13-15 Mei 1998 (TGPF), Laporan Akhir Kerusuhan 13-15 Mei 1998, Jakarta, 23 Oktober 1998. available from: http://semanggipeduli.com/tgpf/bab4.html,
[Accessed at 8 May 2008]. The majority of the dead were those who were trapped in the burning shopping centres.
What made the riot gaining more attention, however, was the rape of the Indonesian Chinese. The stories of rapes appeared publicly not long after the news of more than a thousand deaths in malls emerged. It was Jakarta based NGO, Volunteer Team for Humanity (Tim Relawan untuk Kemanusiaan-TRuK) that brought up the issue about the rapes. According to their report, hundreds of Chinese women were gangraped. Human Rights Watch, Indonesia: The Damaging Debate on Rapes of Ethnic Chinese Women, 1 September 1999, available from: http://www.hrw.org/reports98/indonesia3/rapes.htm, [Accessed at 10
May 2008]. Yet, this appalling news did not immediately receive sympathetic gestures. In fact, doubts were voiced publicly as to whether the rapes indeed had taken place.
In response to the rapes issue, the Indonesian Minister of Women’s Affair Tutty Alawiyah, for instance, contested the data provided by TRuK and asked for concrete proof regarding the mass rape. Karen Strassler, “Gendered Visibilities and the Dream of Transparency: The Chinese-Indonesian Rape Debate in Post-Suharto Indonesia”, Gender & History, Vol.16 No.3 November 2004, pp. 689–725. Similarly, Roesmanhadi the Chief of the Indonesian Police contended that the failure of providing "concrete data" meant that NGOs could be charged with disseminating lies. Ibid.
Responding to the furore over mass rapes as well as international pressure to deal with these rapes the Indonesian government formed a joint fact finding commission (Tim Gabungan Pencari Fakta Kerusuhan Mei 13-15) in which government and NGO were expected to work together to solve this puzzle. Although working within a strict time constraint, this commission finally completed its report and suggested that the riot was a result of political tension at elite level and worsening economic condition. The report, however, did not draw a conclusion that mass rapes were systematic violence but only confirmed that such acts happened simultaneously with the riot and that among those rapes were some that were carried out with particular purposes. TGPF, ‘Laporan Akhir’. For more discussion on TGPF, Jemma Purdey provides an excellent account on the dynamic within the fact finding commission. See, Jemma Purdey, ‘Problematizing the Place of Victims in Reformasi Indonesia: A Contested Truth about The May 1998 Violence’, Asian Survey, Vol. 42, No. 4, The Legacy of Violence in Indonesia, (Jul-Aug, 2002), pp. 605-622.
The raging debate over the mass rapes seemed to impact on the representation of the riots. Once the stories of rapes unfolded, discourse on rapes submerged the other gloomy stories such as those who were burnt to death in the shopping centres. During that time, "anti-Chinese" became a lexicon that is often used to understand the riots.
Indeed, anti-Chinese sentiment was played up at that time. But one should bear in mind that political marginalisation towards Chinese people throughout Indonesian history may have contributed to Indonesian peoples’ understanding of their identities. Anti-Chinese sentiments, in this respect were constructed in order to lay foundation of what constituted Indonesia or pribumi. When the riots took place, the anti-Chinese sentiments were played up in order to represent the violence as something natural which stemmed from the tension between pribumi and non-pribumi.
In other words, these urban poor were dead when they would like to loot things from Chinese stores. And the rapes were merely manifestation of frustration derived from imbalance economic status between Chinese and non-Chinese.
As one crucial element to understand violence are the victims, the existence of victims who died in shopping malls and Chinese victims could help us to deconstruct the representations of May 1998 violence. Yet, in doing so we should not be differentiating them based on racial lines as this will only perpetuate the New Order logic. What we should look at regarding the May violence is that race can be a powerful discourse in producing the knowledge of that violence. Only radical understanding of victims of May Riots which weighs much on the interrogation of dominant discourse may lead to a better comprehension on what happened in those three days of atrocities.