Murder, Rape Propel Indonesia toward Chaos

By Coday, Dennis J. | National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998 | Go to article overview

Murder, Rape Propel Indonesia toward Chaos


Coday, Dennis J., National Catholic Reporter


PAKKRED, THAILAND -- Indonesian social workers and human rights activists claim to have evidence of an organized campaign of assaults, gang rapes and killings of mostly ethnic Chinese women and girls during three days of rioting in Jakarta in May.

According to a Jesuit priest involved with gathering testimony, the systematic and violent intimidation continues against the Chinese community and individuals investigating the violence.

On May. 21, President Suharto, the country's dictatorial leader for 32 years, already under pressure because of an economic crisis he could not control, resigned, but not before riots, looting and unprecedented student protests had shaken Indonesian society to its foundations.

From May 14 through May 16, official reports say, 1,200 people were killed (hundreds burned to death trapped in buildings), 40 shopping malls and other buildings were razed and 1,200 vehicles were destroyed.

In addition, local groups have confirmed reports that during those three days as many as 200 women and girls -- most ethnic Chinese -- were raped by gangs of men. At least 20 of these were murdered or died of wounds suffered during the assaults. Reports are being compiled and released by the Volunteer Team for Humanity, an umbrella group for nongovernmental organizations, student activists, academics and professionals.

"I am afraid the European countries and the [United States] will see this as an ethnic conflict or socioeconomic. It is not," said Jesuit Fr. Sandyawan Sumadri of the Volunteer Team.

Ariel Heryanto, a political anthropologist and writer with the Jakarta-based journal, Jurnal Perempuan, called the mid-May violence in Jakarta and several other cities "racialized state terrorism rather than racially motivated mass riots."

"As elsewhere, racism in Indonesia flares up in household conversations, jokes, gossip and private quarrels. Such pervasive sentiment partly explains the ease with which terrorism evolved last May," Heryanto said. "However, [racism] did not cause the mass burning, raping and looting."

"We have less than unequivocal evidence to indicate who exactly must bear the greatest responsibility for the violence," Heryanto said, but nongovernmental organizations' investigations and witnesses' testimony implicate state-sponsored terrorism -- in the guise of racism -- as responsible for the violence. Heryanto said that most media accounts -- especially foreign media -- portrayed the May violence as ethnic and/or economic conflicts. Such portrayals, he said, are "unwittingly helping the state terrorism by protecting the perpetrators."

Sandyawan explained that the May violence "is how the elite politicians and the powers want to [maintain] theft position." He said they used the chaos to advance their own schemes.

The Volunteer Team found in reports of the violence from far-flung districts of Jakarta suspiciously similar details and patterns that indicate the violence was well-planned and systematically executed by well-organized groups.

Witnesses said trucks or buses would bring men into the area. The men, said the witnesses, were unfamiliar to the area and "well-built" or "fit" and with "crew cuts" or "military-style haircuts." Many witnesses said the men were dressed in college or high school uniforms but were obviously too old or too big to be students.

Eight to 16 men would disembark from trucks or buses and ask people in the streets where the Chinese lived. They would then encourage bystanders to break into and loot homes and businesses owned by ethnic Chinese. These were the men who usually torched buildings, the witnesses said. These men also formed the gangs that raped the women.

The violence against women and girls is especially gruesome. Testimony from victims and witnesses makes clear that the violence was meant to be seen, which, according to Heryanto, is a characteristic of state terrorism.

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