Silent Consent: Indonesia's Abuse of Women

By Wu, Xiao | Harvard International Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Silent Consent: Indonesia's Abuse of Women


Wu, Xiao, Harvard International Review


A gang of men stopped a public bus and, forcibly removing all women of Chinese descent, proceeded to rape them. A ten-year old girl was seized from her ruined home and sexually assaulted in front of onlooking neighbors.

These atrocities did not occur in a war zone, but rather on the streets of the Indonesian capital city Jakarta. Over 170 cases of rape committed against ethnic Chinese women were documented in Indonesia during one week in May 1998, with speculation that the statistics could be significantly higher. While the media covered the Asian economic crisis and spread alarm about the potential hazard to the international market, the brutality of these rapes in Indonesia barely created a ripple in international headlines.

Indonesia, the fourth most populous nation in the world, comprises over 300 ethnic groups and 200 spoken languages--of these, the ethnic Chinese constitute only a small minority. Though Indonesia's contact with China started as early as the fifth century, most of the Chinese population was brought to Indonesia by the Dutch as migrant labor in the 17th and 18th centuries. Resentment against the Chinese grew early on when they became the economic middlemen between the Dutch and the native Indonesians, establishing their position as a merchant class. Similar to European Jews in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Chinese in Indonesia were historically the scapegoats for economic downturns and popular unrest. Today, although the Chinese make up less than four percent of the population, they own over half of the private businesses and 70 percent of the private wealth. When the Indonesian economy collapsed in 1997, pulling down with it a powerful political regime, the chaos that ensued set the stage for the violence of May 1998.

Under Suharto, Chinese Indonesians were protected because of their vital importance to his political economy. When his control faltered in the face of rising economic woes, ethnic Chinese were left defenseless. Still, the blind frustration of the rest of the population--left without political or economic stability--does not entirely explain the mass rapes and waves of violence in Jakarta. The violence seemed to be marked with elements of organizational structure which would not account for the actions of an angry, erratic mob. Trucks with armed men arrived simultaneously in various parts of the city. Gangs of men systematically raided houses and apartment buildings and gathered only ethnic Chinese women. Some witnesses and victims claim to have caught glimpses of army uniforms in the trucks and buses carrying the men. Many aid workers treating the victims believe that the military had a role in the atrocities, and that the rapes were used as a political tool. In 1965, Suharto rode to power on a wave of violence; anywhere between 500,000 and one million people were killed in Indonesia as Suharto assumed control with military backing. In 1998, the Indonesian military may have sought to foment ethnic strife and disorder to generate an excuse to clamp down and usurp power. Regardless of who masterminded the mass rapes, those forces are still at work, as investigators of the incidents have received death threats and other forms of coercion. At this rate, it may take years until true offenders are brought to justice, if justice is found at all.

The international community, more concerned with the unfolding Asian economic crisis, paid little attention to the rapes and violence in Jakarta. The Indonesian government's reluctance to deal with the rapes further obscured the atrocities. Few officials openly acknowledge existence of these crimes, and the government maintains that the numbers are inflated by false accounts meant to further racial unrest. Such claims are not entirely groundless, as some horrifying accounts remain unsubstantiated, but the majority of the cases certainly merit thorough investigation.

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