May 1998 Jakarta Riots

May 16th, 2008, in IM Posts, Opinion, by

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:,
[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:, [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.

137 Comments on “May 1998 Jakarta Riots”

  1. avatar Lairedion says:

    Rob said:

    My point really is that in many ways you adopt the same methods as PN except he uses classic put downs that really do not rely on swearing to work and you cannot keep up. Sad but true!

    Well said. Dragonwall understands the skill to get involved in a beef with virtually everybody here. It’s safer to bet on that then to predict the sun will rise tomorrow morning.

  2. avatar dragonwall says:

    Hmmm sad to say but with nothing to do, it’s all about another lickspittle pick and choose. Anymore?

    People who, on almost every posting, made put downs and insults are those who envy others or are jealous of, in majority, the Chinese achievements in Indonesia where he does not have a share in it.

    I doubted very much about people who made comments but failed to understand finance, economy and trade.. by always finding a scapegoat with their undeveloped brain when strategy and policy are two different matter.


  3. avatar Andy says:

    Correct dragonwall, it appears on these pages some cannot agree to disagree without resorting to personal putdowns and insults. Some of these have even involved partners and family members. It seems when someone is beaten this is the only avenue they have to go. And all they do is prove our point as to how racist and intolerable they are. They should be thoroughly be ashamed of themselves. Maybe this is why their country has been going down the toilet since independence.
    The fact is without the money, support and presence of both chinese and bules, Indonesia would most likely be in the stone age.

  4. avatar dragonwall says:

    Right these is exactly what had happened.

    And all they do is prove our point as to how racist and intolerable they are. They should be thoroughly be ashamed of themselves. Maybe this is why their country has been going down the toilet since independence.

    They want to say what they like to hear, whatever come next is scondary to them. No consideration.

    During the rule of Soeharto, though many had commented after the post Soeharto era, that he is a dictator, a murderer. But at least no one country dare touch Indonesia at that time. There were unrest and civil disputes quelled without spilling into a large scale riot.

    Now many have regretted their support for a freer Indonesia, and resented what is hapenning now in Indonesia. EVEN BIGGER CORRUPTION AMIDST KKN big time.

    Have you ever heard of things like “Minister passing envelope to members of Parliament in passing a law during the Soeharto era”?

    People are beginning to reminisce the good ole days of Soeharto now and even some hoped to have Indonesia return where they were. IMPOSSIBLE.

    You can get people, after Soeharto is gone, Sudharmono or Try Sutrisno to be the President and they will tell you guys to fly a kite. They might even asked you to go support Rizieq and make Indonesia go all Black and White instead of Red and White.

  5. avatar Andy says:

    Well, it’s like being between the devil and the deep blue sea. People want to be free, it’s only natural but with freedom comes greater responsibility as people. One is to protest peacefully and accept the other persons point of view. The other is that ALL citizens have rights, not only the majority. The mob rules mentality shows they are not quite ready. But then at this point there really is not turning back.

  6. avatar dragonwall says:


    People want to be free, it’s only natural


    but with freedom comes greater responsibility as people.

    So who has that, the Indonesians..the mobs..the ABRI, or the innocent people. Nothing stands in the way of these people instigating the riot, just to make sure they succeed in getting Soeharto. Wiranto was almost the most trusted person, so was Hababie and Prabowo. Is that responsiblities?

    One is to protest peacefully and accept the other persons point of view. The other is that ALL citizens have rights, not only the majority.

    For months when I watched the demo at HI it was like clockwork.. 8 to 5 and then all suddenly disperse.

    I saw a increasing amount of armed personnel by the truckload on a small road near Muwardi in Grogol on the 11 May 1998, never seen before tense and nervous. Those traitors that sent Indonesia a new political road to nowhere, no future.

    The mob rules mentality shows they are not quite ready. But then at this point there
    really is not turning back.

    They are very not ready..and as for turning back. fat dream..can’t even repay all foreign to turn back!

  7. avatar Bella says:

    I remember calling home speaking to my parent & my sisters during the May riots. I was so worried for their safety.

    I don’t care whether these unspeakable acts were ‘a manifestation of frustration due to imbalance economic status between Chinese and non-Chinese or what. It definitely is not an excuse to do any form of barbaric acts towards people no matter what their races are.

    Chinese or not Chinese, we are all Indonesians, but more important we are all human. The atrocities committed in the May riots are acts of animals. It’s unacceptable & those beasts must be prosecuted.

    I couldn’t believe that the government choose to deny it. Shame on them just because it didn’t happen to one of them.

  8. avatar Chinese Guya says:

    I think after the tragic Indonesian riots and rape.We chinese also been discrimate during the world war 2 by the Japanese and now the muslims.Where is the mighty Allah go when his people is raping and killing the weak.Is this u call Jihad….u r f*cker ashole u know.If u don’t have food juz take it but don’t rape and kill other human coz we r not animal like u think.

    I think the chinese should unite and we must JIHAD and kills this animal.I think our brother out there have technology to create a virus that can spread and kill fast.We must equip our self when r attack us we must JIHAD and release the virus and die with this bastard.Let their remeber until their grand children for what we don’t to them……If Allah don’t punished them we willl………….Not only the chinese and i think others minority religious and races will face this situation too one day.Because this bastard is barbarian………………We must unite to fight the darkest time have come that we must stand and fight…..Don’t lets them bully us………We must die for our races….Kills our weak family first and don’t let them rape then we run and hide but we will be back to take revenge like the mongols…………………………..

  9. avatar Truth says:

    The barbaric action toward the indo chinese will happened again in the near future. Because no justice is being delivered about this. That is all I wanted to say.

    That’s why Tsunami came to Indonesia. Fair enough maybe 🙂

  10. avatar Andrew says:

    Well, I just read this today, about 3 years after the creator spew-it-all first wrote his discussion. Just a question, why does every forum or open discussion always turns to an open hostility venue? God damn it! even in bloody youtube a video about nothing can generate heated discussion about “I have better guns than you f*ckwits” (not kidding!)

    I think this is an interesting forum, many opinions from both sides including the extremes and the racist (haha I did feel racially offended reading some of the post).
    As an Indonesian living in another country, I tend to hang more with my Indonesian friends, Chinese and Pribumi and others – and there is absolutely no racial barrier between us, nor any socioeconomic background even though we all came from different backgrounds and family statuses. We even make jokes about how some of us are Chinese or Pribumi. But I find it rather upsetting that many intelligent people here who “boast” their extreme vocabulary, still racially barriered (is that a word?) and still strongly believe in their biased opinion. Well, call me naive but UNITE damn it! (and then some of you will probably attack me on being ignorant or whatever..)

  11. avatar ET says:

    Just a question, why does every forum or open discussion always turns to an open hostility venue?

    It’s the human condition. Just like war.

  12. avatar ducky says:

    I read this forum just today. This forum seams to be establish by someone during the 10 year anniversary of the horrible riot.

    In my years of working in other places, I found many interesting ideas that happen around here. A group of collegue say that the worse among chinese is the Indonesian Chinese, but is it really? some say, the Indonesian chinese are born to be the punching bag of the indonesian native.

    Now my question is, since the ducth time, the Chinese are always the target in Indonesia. Why? Is it because they work hard to provide for their own family? or is it because the save so much that it make other envy by their way of life?

    recently, I met a person in Indonesia, He is a chinese Indonesian, he own an acre of land and planted some fruit. He said when he first invested on that land, he employ some people to guard the place and hope to have some return. He said Hopefully the plantation can bring in some revenue may be bring in tourism to that area. Sadly, every season when the fruits are ready to be picked, it has been looted by the surrounding community. This left nothing to the investor only looted trees, which does not even have leaves on it.

    On another occasion I met a Malay who worked in Indonesia. He told me, the workers there are so slow. When he ask one of the worker there, the answer was somewhat unexpected. The worker said ” sir, I am building stuff, so it takes me about 3 days to finish, if you want me to steal this, it will take me less than 1 hour” a rather interesting view on how the socity work.

    Now The chinese ladies that was raped, ehhh wake up… they are gang raped. They died due to blunt object that was inserted and appplied on thier bodies. now think… if it happen to the native women and children, will they still have the strength to find the evidance? Such case should require other laws to protect them. How many women traumatised due to this event. It is unaccountable, you want to find evidance, go and talk to the nurses in Mount Elizabeth hospital in Singapore who work there during that time. How to speak up when the culture is very conservative at that time? even now?

    Chinese Indonesian is like native Indonesian. They have been born brought up in Indonesia. Some dont even know their own surname. Some have been mixed with the local. Now there is sooo much problem that is caused by the official. Lapindo, that takes up the people land. What is done to that, the earthquake, famine, and many other issues. Indonesia is a jewel where the international community love to come and visit. But scared at the same time on the thick racial discrimination there. If both party will never unite then Indonesia will never unite. So long as the culprit and executor of the May 1998 never be brought to justice then Indonesia will never unite. If the recent video that was done by some actress can create such a hevoc, then what happen to the raping 10 years ago? where is the Justice and democracy? If they really want to bring KKN down. Then start with the May 1998 incident. So long this incident is not solved, then Indonesia will never truly be able to leave the KKN ground. it will just get worse and more invisible. This kind of riot will happen again with greater altitude.

    Guys if you guys love Indonesia, then please bring this culprit to justice.

  13. avatar mochi says:

    You know what Kinch..i found that there’s nothing wrong with Spew’s writing..after all people have different view and perspective.. and what is it with you?why cant u just accept the real truth that Chinese people were suffered? Dont u get it?all that he/she tried to say was the evidence that Chinese people were really harmed. And if u say words like lame,crap,blah blah blah..after reading my writings i wont care about it same goes to you too Spew..dont be annoyed by those words..seriously man(or women?whatever)
    What stands for real was the truth that Chinese people were harmed so badly on May 1998. Did u read what’s just Deng Xiao Phing and Marisa wrote?that’s just some proofs that Chinese people were actually gangraped,killed,tortured. U can say whatever you want to say but there!i said it.. I agreed with Spew, Marisa, and Xiao Phing..that Chinese people suffer because of very strong discrimination between native indonesians and chinese people. I dont say that native Indonesians were bad people, in fact some of my friends were native indonesians and we respected each others.We got along very well. We’re all humans created by the same GOD.. Chinese,non-Chinese,Indonesians,etc.. we all might commit the same crime or even all depends on the final action..Chinese people can pursue riot for payback but instead they forgave those who tortured their descents and tried to forget it (that really needed soo much effort), to maintain peace and to prevent anymore riot and horrible acts.. they still respect Indo and they realized that they gained job and money from working at indo. Please..just be a peace things right and just keep up with the healthy competition..God will bless those who did things right.

  14. avatar Mochi says:

    Totally agree with what Ducky said!!yeah u said it crystal clear.

  15. avatar Mochi says:

    Chinese Guya Says:
    May 2nd, 2009 at 12:09 pm
    I think after the tragic Indonesian riots and rape.We chinese also been discrimate during the world war 2 by the Japanese and now the muslims.Where is the mighty Allah go when his people is raping and killing the weak.Is this u call Jihad….u r f*cker ashole u know.If u don’t have food juz take it but don’t rape and kill other human coz we r not animal like u think.

    I think the chinese should unite and we must JIHAD and kills this animal

    >>Dont be burned by revenge please.. it will create another riot which will take more innocent victims and it will become a never-ending war..what they did was totally horrible but we shouldnt be doing the same thing like them.. if we do the same thing,then what’s the difference between us and them?we just become animals like them. Am i right?be a winner..we do our best and get to the top with the right and honest way..that way we can show them that we’re not giving up,we were traumatized but yet we can make it through.

  16. avatar Someone says:

    just read this blog today,
    skipped to the last page.

    I’m a Chinese, and yes the babi

    reality check.

    1. indos rape a pig, if that is what they claimed.
    2. the babi in china has the 2nd largest market in the world, 2nd buying power parity, and owns most of the money in this world.
    3. there is not only the Chinese in china, let talk about Singapore, no need more intro to this, Taiwan, Hong Kong.
    4. above is the bright side of things, things that you can see, who do you think control the underworld? the Europeans, Americans?
    5.Indonesian made a lousy maid (i have 5 of them.), you all are lazy, sleep like a pig, does not feel grateful for what you get, my mom freaking give pure gold jewelry to one of my maids to be treaty with curses and cruel words on the last day of her employment. freaking wake up you god damn imbeciles, you don’t sleep around all day and be envied of others who worked their arses out. f*ck you and f*ck you all.
    6. you dare to do it but here you are afraid to admit it, and obscuring behind those fancy words of yours. giving reasons like stress and stuff i’ll tell you waht stress is, try working 12 hours a day 26 days a month just to get a good old scolding from your boss that expect you to do his job. that’s freaking stress, not lying on you bed and do nothing all day bastard.

    words to the writer: F*CK YOU, what would you say if people gang raped your whole family in front of you and then throw them into a blazing house.
    Fuck you all bastards. even Hitler gave the Jews a bullet in the head (it’s freaking clean and painless.)

    Fuck Indonesian government
    Fuck all those indo bastards. someday, someone, it may not be me, but rest assure,you will pay. and i mean it.

    it’s a different world now. you all will pay.


  17. avatar Wolf says:

    It is sad that a topic put up for debate to reach a clear understanding has been subverted by the same anonymous attacks that fueled the May ’98 ‘revolution’. What I have to say may be wrong; I’m pretty sure it’s not but if you attack me instead of my argument then you admit that you cannot refute my argument.

    The May ’98 riots and the occupation of the presidential palace by students was sold all around the world as a democratic revolution – the realisaion of the Reformasi, the ousting of the evil dictator, Suharto, and the rolling out of democracy throughout Indonesia.

    It was a complete sham. The year before, during the Asian Stock Market crash of ’97 Suharto had completely ignored the IMFs suggestions to end nepotism and the corruption that chased away foreign investment and instead had tied the value of the Rupiah to the USA dollar which left Congress with no other choice but to impose trade sanctions.

    Of course, Congress needed the entire world to impose those trade sanctions so they couched it from a humanitarian perspective. “We want Indonesia to be democratic” = we want Suharto gone in whatever way suits and for Indonesia to give all the appearances of democracy for stability and in its treatment of foreign money. While a lot of changes were made to business law and those applicable to licencing and trade, no changes were ever made to the criminal courts or laws that would affect the Indonesian people. The last thing the USA and the G8 wanted was 300 million Mulims with the right of democratic self-determination and it was important that anyone that the government saw as a threat could be nullified without legal consequences.

    However, the proof given that Indonesia was now democratic was a revolving-door presidency. And, since Indonesia had always had elections even if Suharto always won we need to look at why the other parties even contested them. The reward for a candidate who got a good electoral vote was a seat at Suharto’s table so in a very real sense it was a system that encouraged corruption because the candidates for the other parties used the elections for their own personal gains.

    The true test of a non-totalitarian system are criminal courts that adhere to due process to prosecute the laws of the land without any influence from the government and a legislature that enforces fair debate to create laws that are beneficial to the people. And, finally fair elections that allow the people to choose what laws will rule them.

    But none of this happened. Indonesia got a new image but no change that forced people to all be subject to the law and answerable to the courts for any infractions. And laws that only apply to the powerless is a sure sign of dictatorship.

    So why were the Chinese people persecuted in May ’98? Because Suharto wasn’t ousted; he retired with $36 billion in assets, his household staff and retainers, to a lovely home in Jakarta where he continued to rule the Indonesian political scene with his opinion on acceptable presidential candidates. Since his leaving was a lie and accomplished under amicable circumstances, the look of ‘revolution and dissent’ had to be created elsewhere.

    The TNI manipulated the crowds towards Sino-Indonesians because no one in Indonesia would ever be standing up for them and the best chances of avoiding further dissent and scrutiny was to single out those without a voice who the people would consider acceptable to attack.

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