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Jakarta Post

The mystery of the May 1998 tragedy

Frans H. Winarta
Jakarta   ●   Tue, May 13, 2014

It has been 16 years since the riots in May 1998 took place, but the tragedy remains a mystery as to how such systematic and gross crimes against humanity could happen in a country globally known for its hospitality and friendliness.

The atrocities added insult to injury of Indonesia'€™s already poor human rights record, which characterized the New Order regime.

Until today, there has been no official data on the precise number of people killed, seriously injured, permanently disabled and raped when Jakarta became engulfed in total chaos during those few days of May 13-15.

However, data compiled in a report by a joint fact-finding team is quite shocking because of the massive estimate of the number of victims.

According to the Jakarta Military Command, 463 people were killed and 69 injured. While according to the Violence against Women division of the Team of Volunteers for Humanity, which helped to conduct the fact-finding mission, the number of rape victims totaled 152; 20 of whom died as a result.

The May 1998 riots can be categorized as a crime against humanity, and the entity responsible was former president Soeharto'€™s New Order administration, particularly the military and the police that were in charge of security at the time.

The transfer of power from the New Order to the Reform era, however, was not followed up by a thorough investigation and search for the mastermind(s) of the May 1998 tragedy. In the same style, during his two terms in office from 2004 to 2014, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has never displayed an indication, let alone the intention, to uncover the cause of the widespread violence and its perpetrators.

Indonesia'€™s leaders may have forgotten the humanitarian principle of the state ideology Pancasila.

Not one post-New Order president has publicly apologized to the families of the victims or provided them with compensation.

The May 1998 tragedy is at risk of being buried forever without the facts being revealed, unless a worthy government comes to power in Indonesia with the courage to uncover the truth.

It should be noted that, as a crime against humanity, the May incident could be heard before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, as long as a suspect was named.

Obviously, in the face of the presidential election in July, there is a ray of hope, albeit slight, that Indonesia will choose a national leader who dares to resolve the May 1998 crime against humanity as part of his bid to build a solid, dignified and respectable administration.

For better or worse, the next administration should include a settlement of past human rights violations, particularly crimes against humanity, in its priority agenda.

Abraham Lincoln once said: '€œYou can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.'€ Let'€™s hope the new administration restores the nation'€™s respect for democracy and human rights by uncovering the mystery surrounding the May 1998 tragedy.


The writer is chairman of the Indonesian Advocates Association (Peradin) and lecturer at the Faculty of Law at Pelita Harapan University, Tangerang.