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Jakarta Post

Looking back to May 1998, 20 years forward

Brisbane   /   Fri, May 25, 2018   /   02:38 pm
Looking back to May 1998, 20 years forward Pressing for reform: A member of the Victims Soladirity Network for Justice (JSKK) participates in the 538th edition of the Kamisan rally in front of the Merdeka Palace in Jakarta on Thursday, May 17. The network’s activists accused the government of failing to fulfil its promise to carry out a six-point reform program. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

May 2018 is flooded with news on terrorism, from the Mako Brimob riot to Surabaya and Sidoarjo bombings. Too many have died, including women and children. In other parts of Indonesia, arrests were made to stop suspected terrorists from going any further.

At the same time, we are commemorating the 20th anniversary of the May 1998 tragedy. 20 years ago, a riot took many innocent lives, mostly in Jakarta, and gave birth to a new era in Indonesia: the reformasi era. On May 21, 1998, Soeharto quit after 32 years ruling the country.

The May 1998 riot caused many deaths. Dozens of Chinese-Indonesian women were raped and hundreds of houses and shops owned by Chinese-Indonesians were raided. The Fact Finding Joint Team (TGPF) could not produce an actual number on how many women were actually raped.

There is a stark difference between May 1998 riot and various terror attacks in May 2018.

The chaos from recent terror attacks could be quickly handled by the government and security apparatus. In a short period, suspected terrorists were arrested. The rioting terrorist detainees at the Mako Brimob, the National Police Mobile Brigade headquarters, were moved to a more secured facility. The government and security apparatus showed its supremacy, forcing Islamic radicals to lay low for the time being.

Contrast this to the attitude of government and security apparatus in May 1998, or on a larger scale, 1965-1966.

In May 1998,  many eyewitnesses, retired military officers and fact finding teams verified that it was the military who coordinated, led, and orchestrated the chaos which sparked massive racism towards the Chinese-Indonesians.

The same goes with what happened after October 1, 1965.  The military under Soeharto commanded the inhumane mass killing which caused more than one million deaths and put at least 100,000 political prisoners behind bars without fair trial. Siblings, children and relatives of the killed people and political prisoners, hence millions of innocent Indonesians, were persecuted and discriminated against. It was as if the people of Indonesia lived inside the biggest prison in the world.

Read also: Footsteps in the sand of an emerging nation

In facing the terrorists, the administration of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has been firm, from arresting suspected terrorists to reviving the TNI antiterror unit amid controversy.

The National Commission on Human Rights and the fact-finding team of May 1998 have respectively revealed their findings on the 1965 and 1998 tragedies, that there were gross human rights violations and military involvement in both cases. However, there had been no punishment for the perpetrators. No justice for the victims, survivors and their families.

There were reports on Soeharto’s involvement in the 1965 tragedy. Wiranto, then the military commander, and Prabowo Subianto, then a military officer, were also named in the 1998 tragedy; both have denied any allegation of wrongdoing.

History shows that as long as the civil government depends on the support of the military, the impunity enjoyed by military figures will continue. Both civil and military leaders can commit serious crime without legal consequences.

 Under Guided Democracy (1959 to 1965), there was a heated debate on what Chinese-Indonesians should do. There was the integration principle, spearheaded by the Consultative Body for Indonesian Citizenship (Baperki), which encouraged the Chinese-Indonesians community to integrate itself into politics, economic, and social activity without leaving behind its culture and identity. The proponents argued that someone’s loyalty to Indonesia could not be judged by their racial background, thus Chinese-Indonesians who have lived in the country for generations should be accepted as Indonesian.

On the other side was the Institute for Development of National Unity (LPKB), which encouraged assimilation, in which Chinese-Indonesians were encouraged to leave their cultural identity, to cut off emotional ties with China, to change their Chinese names into Indonesian sounding ones, and to marry non-Chinese to blur the typical physical characteristics of their future children. Some even encouraged Chinese-Indonesians to convert to Islam.

Under Guided Democracy, the integration camp was ahead in the race. The leftist Baperki was supported by Sukarno and the then influential Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).  Meanwhile LPKB was supported by the Army and right-wing political parties.

The dramatic political turbulence in 1965 changed this dynamic. Baperki was banned and the assimilation principle was turned into law by Soeharto. During 32 years there was cultural genocide against the Chinese-Indonesians. Celebration of Chinese New Year (Imlek) was banned from the public, so was the Chinese alphabet, barongsai or lion dance performance, traditional rituals, and Chinese-sounding names. Laws and regulations were issued to support this racial discrimination.

The Chinese-Indonesians lived as second-class citizens, facing discrimination on almost all fronts.

Even after that, Chinese-Indonesians again had to suffer in 1998. This was evidence that as a minority, they did not have support from both government and the majority. This was proof that assimilation was not the key to safety for Chinese-Indonesians.

Reformasi era opened up new rooms for discussions for the Chinese-Indonesian problem. In general, people have accepted that multiculturalism and pluralism, as implemented in other countries and stated in the country’s national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in diversity) is the better way than assimilation.

Will the May 1998 riot happen again?

The racially charged May 1998 riot is akin to bush fires caused by arsonists in Victoria in Australia or California in the United States.

There are three main factors. First is the huge, widening economic gap among the people. This is like the dry season which causes wild grass and bushes to dry.

Second is the seed of racism among the people, inherited from the Dutch colonization period, exacerbated by the government’s lackadaisical attitude towards racism. This is the sparks of fire in the field.

Third is the political manipulation by the government or political figures who want to corner Chinese-Indonesians as scapegoats for poverty and people’s suffering. This is the fuel to the fire.

If the three factors meet, it is no surprise that a “May 1998” will happen again.

Are we there yet?

The economic inequality has been always there, but the rupiah’s depreciation may lead us to another economic recession.

The 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election showed us again the anti-Chinese sentiment, which contributed greatly to Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama’s defeat. What was different from 1998 was Jokowi’s persistent effort to uphold pluralism and to curb racial discrimination that followed. However, history shows pluralism is cheap lip service. The day may come when the rulers will once again have the choice to sacrifice Chinese-Indonesian as political scapegoat.

To counter the impact of this political manipulation, Chinese-Indonesians have to stand beside the poor, to make the people’s will into their own, to create a feel of solidarity. Only then will people not be easily manipulated to fight among themselves.


The writer, Board Member of Herb Feith Foundation, received his PhD in political science from Monash University, Melbourne.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.