Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Solidarity in suffering

Published: Jul 26, 2007

Victims of the May 1998 riots seek justice and healing

Rahadian Permadi

Dozens of people are gathered in the modest office of the Jakarta human rights organisation, Volunteer Team for Humanity (Tim Relawan untuk Kemanusiaan: TRuK). They are family members of some of those who were killed in the violence in Jakarta during the final days of the Suharto regime, which claimed up to 1200 lives. Most victims were from among the ranks of Jakarta’s urban poor who burned to death in shopping malls. In addition, during the violence as many as 168 women, mostly ethnic Chinese, were raped, either in their homes or on the streets. Many of these women were victims of gang rape.

Those who lost loved ones in the May 1998 riots have formed a community group called the ‘Families of the Victims of the May 1998 Riots’ to campaign for justice. Together this group of mostly urban poor and ethnic Chinese families urge the government to bring the perpetrators of the violence to trial and to provide rehabilitation for the rape victims.

In the immediate aftermath of the riots, the grief the victims’ families felt was compounded by the actions of the government, which sought to blame the violence on the very people who were its victims. The government labelled the urban poor victims ‘looters’ (penjarah), stigmatising them as criminals. For the ethnic Chinese victims, the general presumption was that the violence was racially motivated, and deserved. Many families were intimidated into silence.

Organisations that raised concerns about the human rights abuses in the May riots also became targets of intimidation. Those who received threats suspect they came from within the security forces, in particular Kopassus (Special Forces).

After the riots the individual stories of suffering were subsumed by controversy, particularly in relation to the allegations of mass rape. Although the government has sought to deny these allegations a number of organisations working with survivors insist they are true. Yet the focus on the debate over whether or not the rapes indeed took place has meant that the deaths of up to 1200 people has received little public attention.

Building a community

By forming a community, the families of the victims break down their sense of isolation and powerlessness and work towards strengthening their position both politically and economically.

The community meets every fortnight on a Thursday. As well as planning advocacy campaigns and activities, the meetings have become a forum for personal sharing. The atmosphere is relaxed and informal discussions often interrupt the agenda as families discuss their children and share recipes. Once complete strangers, they now talk intimately — like family.

Over time these discussions have enabled the families to understand what happened and in the process have helped them to heal. The families now recognise that they and their loved ones were victims of state violence. Together with the findings of a government-sanctioned report into the violence, their stories and those of witnesses it has become clear that the crowds were invited into the shopping centres to loot. The buildings were then set alight. Both the government and witness reports indicate that military agents were behind the violence. This knowledge has become very important for the victims’ families who now believe that their relatives were not criminals.

Solidarity in suffering

By widening their network the victims’ community has become increasingly active within the existing solidarity movement. Together they organise campaigns highlighting instances of violence in Indonesia.

In 2003 the community was an active participant in the National Victim’s gathering. The meeting was attended by survivors of institutionalised violence, including the 1965-1966 nation-wide massacre of alleged communists, in which an estimated 500,000 people were murdered; the killings of Muslim demonstrators by the military at Tanjung Priok in 1984; and conflicts between the military and separatist movements in Papua and Aceh.

Involvement in solidarity actions with other survivors has given the families a broader perspective. They realise that many others have shared similar experiences. One mother from the ‘Families of the Victims of the May 1998 Riots’ who met with survivors of the 1965 killings, said that after listening to their stories she understood that the official government versions of events were lies. Moreover, the continuing hope of the survivors of 1965 that they will eventually see justice for their suffering, inspired and encouraged families of the victims of the 1998 riots.

Through their own search for justice, the collective consciousness of the victims’ families may contribute to the formulation of justice and reconciliation processes in Indonesia in the future. Yet if this community is to have a wider impact, the families need to continue to build on the knowledge gained so far and to widen their network.

They must also continue to demand legal accountability for the perpetrators of the violence. In the case of the 1984 Tanjung Priok killings, the legal practice of ‘making peace’ in return for financial compensation (islah) has effectively undermined efforts to promote justice for the victims. In an attempt to convince victims and their families to halt legal proceedings military officers accused of involvement have offered compensation and ‘peace’. Discussions facilitated by TRuK on this topic help the families of the victims of the 1998 riots to understand that legal accountability is essential for preventing human rights abuses from continuing with impunity in Indonesia.

Rahadian Permadi (chietwo@excite.com) is a member of TRuK.

Inside Indonesia 78: Apr - Jun 2004

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