Nov 18, 2018 Last Updated 12:17 PM, Nov 15, 2018

Blood in the streets

Published: Sep 22, 2007

The anger and the bullets are real. So why do student demonstrations reek of melodrama?

Chris Brown

Sometime after dark on Friday the 13th of November, I found myself staring at three men lying motionless in the gutter. From under the body of one of them a black pool crept silently. A dozen people converged, suddenly crowding close enough to touch, but none did. In the flashes of light from their cameras, the puddle flickered dark red.

All of the victims were too stunned to speak even as some of us lifted them up, trying to carry them out of the line of fire and into the tear gas and vomit haze of Atma Jaya University. I had already seen soldiers beating stretcher crews who could only huddle protectively over their charge. The eyes of the man I helped carry, the one bleeding heavily, were open but lifeless, body utterly limp. I don’t know if he survived. I went back to take more pictures.

The long day-into-night on the street to the north of central Jakarta’s Semanggi overpass was immediately dubbed Bloody Semanggi (Semanggi Berdarah) in the local press. It is certainly deserving of infamy. For no clear reason, soldiers repeatedly attacked peaceful demonstrators and killed an unverifiable number of people. I saw, and later saw pictures of, wounded people being taken away by soldiers; no one seems to know where.

However, without implying the slightest disrespect to all those who risked their lives at Semanggi to confront the military, nor to those who were gassed, beaten, wounded, or killed, one thing became clear to me that night: the degree of predetermined drama that surrounded the event even as it happened was out of proportion to the event itself. That sense of unreality troubled me in the ensuing days, and grew greater as a momentum of popular protest that had seemed revolutionary evaporated into thin air.


The greatest number of the injured were beaten with clubs. But the most shocking aspect of the tragedy was that soldiers fired at unarmed civilians. Each time it happened the street seemed to become a war zone, an appallingly unequal massacre. Despite dogged denials from the armed forces (Abri) that live ammunition was used, doctors came forward with bullets extracted from victims.

Of the thousands of rounds fired that night, most were not real bullets. But even plastic pellets fired from assault rifles can cause nasty wounds, and from close range the composition of the projectile becomes a moot point. Judging from the shell casings I picked up at the scene, however, more than half the rounds were blanks, a fact not often mentioned in the Indonesian press and widely misunderstood by Indonesians at the scene, but one that goes a long way towards explaining why many more were not hurt.

Fear was amply justified. No one but the soldiers had any way of knowing the truth when they first opened fire, nor again with each ensuing volley. The crowd fled, but did not disperse. Impressively enough, after each wave of horror, students moved back into the street and, angry though they were at the deaths and inhumanity, insisted on maintaining peaceful confrontation. They clamped down immediately on anyone caught throwing stones, or hurling excessively pointed insults, at the soldiers. It was truly a heroic exercise of restraint. They even organised open soapbox forums (mimbar bebas), with handheld loudspeakers, only a few feet away from the ranks of armoured troops.

Some people recited exaggerated poetry in affected voices, as has long since become the custom at tamer demonstrations of the past, to the point where ‘to recite poetry’ (berpoesi) has practically become a synonym for political protest. Others came to the fore to cry and lament their fallen classmates, posing cooperatively for cameras. Some gave pointed analyses of what they felt was simply the continuing Suharto regime. And eventually, while students still sat on the pavement, the shooting began again.

In answer to the shots, far back up the street people beat on metal lampposts, on guardrails, on barrels, raising a unified din that drowned out even the unplaceable roar of the crowd itself, which for days had offered an audible beacon to anyone searching for the latest protest. Such eerie, syncopated percussion almost seemed too choreographed to be spontaneous. The masses, as they are called to distinguish them from the students, were heterogeneous at first, men and women of all ages.

As night fell young men stayed on. They were far less aggressive than even spokesmen on the side of reform have tended to admit. They damaged none of the glass-walled skyscrapers lining the street. Some were ‘armed’ with slingshots. When attacked, others threw stones. Perhaps to conserve ammunition, soldiers also stooped to throwing stones; an absurd sight, as they juggled plastic shield and assault rifle to wind up for a throw.


By now you probably know this story. It will have already entered history. Who knows but if by the time you read this some greater tragedy will have overtaken it. The curious part, however, is that it was destined to be history even before it happened. On the fourth and last day of the special session of the People’s Consultative Assembly MPR tension was at a peak. Representatives from the world press were on hand. The slogans of many groups in the street, Forum Kota and Front Jakarta in particular, had shifted from ‘reformasi’ to ‘revolusi,’ soon to become ‘revolusi sampai mati’ (revolution unto death). Cameras waited in the gap between opposing lines. The sound of gunfire was literally the cue to switch on the spotlights.

Yet as surely as the problem of heightened melodrama surrounding news events is associated with mass media around the globe, let us not be too quick to blame the media in Indonesia. The influence of news cameras in making all the world a stage and provoking us to ‘act,’ if rarely to action, presumes a habit of being represented, an accommodation to having each our 15 minutes of fame, foreign to New Order Indonesia.

Further, counter to a degree of positive liberalisation of formal press controls in past months, a more insidious latent liberal tendency has intensified. In a variation on the Enlightenment legacy, top editors and reporters, at least in the established media, are inclined to take the caveat of a ‘responsible press’ (as a prerequisite of its freedom) a little too much to heart. The tentative retreat of government pressure has heightened concerns about the provocative effect ‘real’ news may have. Loathe to see the blame for riots and death laid at their feet, self-censorship is more rampant than ever.

To give only a single example, the first very tense protest near Suharto’s house after the Semanggi incident, though attended by local camera crews, failed to rate a single word of mention on either RCTI or SCTV nightly TV news, to say nothing of the government station, leaving the impression that the day had passed uneventfully. Perhaps this was the point of people who during the special MPR session cavorted about with cardboard TV cameras and plastic-bottle-on-a-stick microphones, eliciting hilarity from everyone but the legitimate press. Or perhaps the satire, which seems to have become something of a tradition at least since the last elections, pointed more cynically to the empty formality of protest.

The week after the Bloody Semanggi incident was surprisingly quiet. At the site where the heroes of the reformation (pahlawan reformasi) fell, a steady stream of people covered hundreds of feet of cloth with messages of condolence for the victims, and with denunciations of the government, both well deserved. Yet the phrase pahlawan reformasi has an odd ring, a hint of halfway measure out of place to the calling of a hero. It is an effort to lay claim to the dramatic force of historic revolutions. It was as if the reformation was already past, and its defining moment needed to be savoured. A similar nostalgic licence rang through as well in the curious words of an Indonesian reporter I ran into several days after the Event (when I had shielded her from a line of soldiers sweeping past). She made a point of thanking me ‘for saving my life, and especially my camera.’


Not only the pervasive sense of exaggeration seems markedly dramatic. There is also the related concern that people may not be what they seem, that they might only be acting. The ‘security volunteers’ (Pam Swakarsa), who claimed to have gathered of their own accord to protect the special session and the nation, turned out to be largely destitute men bussed in from outside Jakarta. They were paid 10,000 rupiah or more a day to attack student demonstrators. Known by the koranic headbands they wore and the bamboo spears they brandished, they were nevertheless suspected at every opportunity to be moving incognito among the crowds. Intel operatives were also known to be working among the students and demands to produce ID cards were not uncommon. After the deadly conflict at Semanggi, faced with proof that real bullets were fired, military officials even raised the possibility of infiltrators in the army impersonating soldiers.

So what is the point of noting a touch of melodrama in a legitimate tragedy? Calling attention to aspects of stagecraft in Indonesian politics risks coming off as yet another analysis of how Java is like a shadow play. No matter if true that as yet unnamed influential people are certainly pulling strings to effect counter-demonstrations, incite riots, and otherwise further their own nefarious purposes (e.g. the Pam Swakarsa); the point is larger than a cultural metaphor. In the past (notably the early 60’s), formal drama such as ludruk theatre was used to articulate protest and broaden support for change. Now activists seek, whenever possible, to supplant direct confrontation with an impressive but formally limited dramatic substitute. Drama has become a field of contest in its own right, for students at least the preferred field of contest.

Towards the end of the night, after the third attack by soldiers, some people ran out of patience. They began sporadic attacks with molotov cocktails. They were a factor in forcing soldiers to retreat. The bombs were clearly not prepared in advance, and not always made properly. Most of the attacks fell short, but in front of the university several scored direct hits on army lines. Not long afterwards, student leaders and military commanders agreed to a truce for the night, averting an improvisational escalation that might have changed the character of reformasi irrevocably.


Chris Brown is a postgraduate student in anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999

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