Nov 30, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Orphans no more

Published: Sep 22, 2007
The biggest demonstration in May took place not in Jakarta, but hundreds of kilometres away in Yogyakarta. It was almost a rebirth.

Dwi Marianto 

On Tuesday afternoon, 19 May 1998, the atmosphere in Yogyakarta was already tense. Impatience to meet together with Sultan Hamengkubuwono X at his palace, the kraton, mixed with rumours that a large number of rioters had been brought in from outside, could be felt on campuses and in the shopping centres. Only a few days earlier we had seen shooting, burning, looting and chaos in Jakarta, Solo, and other cities. The rapes of Chinese women had not yet been widely publicised.

Every campus had an aid post to look after the possible victims of violence. Intimidation was in the air. People remembered how Mozes Gatotkaca was killed, and how Pito was shot in the leg by police. Students made posters urging people not to go to demonstrations on their own, and to tell their friends where they were going.

There were rumours of unknown persons looking to eliminate campus activists. People knew the military had used thugs in the past to shut up activists who threatened Suharto's regime. Every one believed them, because the reports of the disappeared, and of others shot and killed, were not mere fantasy.

Students Nevertheless, there was courage enough to make banners and posters criticising a New Order that had looted and brought suffering to the people for over 30 years. On all the campuses of Yogyakarta's universities, especially at Gajah Mada, at the Islamic university IAIN and at the Indonesian Art Institute ISI, students were planning how to conduct the action of 20 May 1998, and how to keep it peaceful.

The atmosphere on the morning of the next day, Wednesday (Kliwon on the Javanese calendar), was gripping. Groups of high school students were hanging around the streets. Others, wearing demonstrators' garb, rode their motorbikes along the main streets.

Amien Rais supporters from the Muhammadiyah high school came out wearing green. People were very impressed with Amien Rais' announced plan to bring a million people onto the streets in Jakarta, 500 kilometres to the northwest. Abri had opposed that plan, ostensibly to avoid bloodshed. Which could easily have happened, because some people were very angry and determined. The soldiers, too, had become edgy.

At 8:30am, university students, high school students, as well as ordinary Yogyakarta citizens started streaming towards the kraton from various directions. They were so solid and compact together. Loathing for Suharto united them, or perhaps it was a reaction against the way the authorities had manipulated the law throughout the New Order.

By 9:00am the streets were full of students, all wearing something to show what institution they were from. Some cars had loudspeakers fitted. Many people wore witty anti-Suharto shirts and attracted attention to themselves in order to ignite the spirit of Reformation.

Banners called for Suharto to be tried and hung were everywhere. Others said 'Pro-Reformation', and 'Yogyakarta is against rioting'. Lots wore T-shirts with Megawati's picture or carried a poster of her father Bung Karno. Members of 'Faithful Supporters of Mrs Megawati' (Psim) carried blue and white flags. People from the Islamic party PPP wore green head bands or T- shirts with the green star.

Carnival Security guards from the PPP, from Nahdatul Ulama, and from Megawati's PDI worked together to keep things peaceful, all in their impressive uniforms. Yet none of them behaved as if they were engaged in a confrontation. It was a carnival atmosphere.

Calls not to engage in violence rang out constantly. From time to time activists would burst into a yell demanding Suharto's resignation. Insults at Suharto's expense became popular entertainment.

Songs were heard whose tunes everyone knew but whose words had been changed. So the song 'Planting corn' was changed to: 'Hang him, hang him, hang that Suharto, hang that Suharto at the Flower Market' (that's Yogya's brothel district). Not a pretty sentiment perhaps, but there was lots of creativity. Some were humorous, others satirical, threatening or serious.

The river of humanity edged closer to the kraton. A strong feeling of solidarity made the heat of the sun easy to bear. Beside the road, crowds cheered on the masses on the street. Many gave them drinks, peppermints, or snacks for free. Among the crowd occasionally a poster would pop up showing Suharto with a Hitler moustache.

Shops, stalls, banks, traders, all stopped their business. They all wanted to show their sympathy for what the students had been fighting for for so long.

At the corner just before entering the large field (alun- alun) in front of the kraton a huge banner was draped from the central post office reading: 'Yogya is ready to become the capital'. Whoever had the courage to climb up to hang that there? Certainly not a postman.

Post Office employees just watched passively from the second floor of their building. In their hearts they certainly felt sympathetic towards the reformist ranks flooding the streets below, but at that time they were still too afraid even to wave at them. They were bound to Golkar and the civil service union Korpri. And they had enjoyed the New Order.

Some activists stood on their car roof and shouted at them: 'Come on down, the Titanic is sinking'. The film Titanic had been showing at the cinemas for weeks, and everyone knew the story. In the alun-alun there were lots of stalls and kiosks, because it was the Sekaten ceremony. But none of them were damaged. Everyone restrained themselves.

Before the kraton stage people waited patiently for the sultan. In the meantime all kinds of groups brought entertainment: The Malioboro Street Singers, the Kampung Group, the Untung Basuki Music Group. Students organised the whole show. Didik Nini Thowok performed a dance.

Butet Kertaredjasa presented a parody of Suharto's voice, just as Suharto would always appear in public telling people what to do. Volunteers from various hospitals were on hand in case of need. The joy of a big party and the determination of struggle were all mixed into one.

Sultan Ceremonial guards from the kraton were there in their finery. They had muskets without bullets. Quite a contrast with the PPP and PDI security guards in their military-style uniforms, but their ancient cut of clothes helped create a special atmosphere in which everyone put aside the interests of their own group to listen to the voice of the people that was about to be heard.

Hamengkubuwono X and his queen Hemas appeared together with Yogyakarta's second sultan, Paku Alam VIII. Then the declaration (maklumat) each had prepared was read out.

In his address, Sultan Hamengkubuwono criticised the misuse of language by the power holder merely to perpetuate their power and to keep the people down. He said those in power far too readily called others with a different viewpoint a rebel (mbalelo), merely in order to strike them down.

The sultan criticised the constant calls on the people to be patient, to be obedient, polite and so on, while the regime itself deliberately smashed any feelings of shame it might have had and gave itself over to greed.

Then the sultan said those who were in the wrong should own up and resign. Hearing this veiled denouncement everyone knew who was intended: no one other than the Dasamuka of the New Order. (Dasamuka is a power-hungry king in the shadow puppet theatre who is repaid with a horrible death). A tremendous applause rose up.

This was only the second maklumat the sultan of Yogyakarta had ever made. The first was by his father, Hamengkubuwono IX, on 5 September 1945, which declared that the Yogyakarta sultanate was entering the Republic of Indonesia. With this declaration of 20 May 1998, Hamengkubuwono declared he had sided with the people. He no longer wanted the people to be an object of arbitrary power. The people had to be defended. The misuse of power had to be stopped.

The crowd of hundreds of thousands was so orderly as they listened. When the sultan had finished, they broke up and quietly went home or back to their campus or office. Most had to walk, because it was impossible to move a vehicle.

During the New Order, most of the Indonesian people felt as if they had become orphans. Sharp weapons and the stigma of subversion kept them quiet. Their ears were only permitted to hear the voice of the power holder. Their dreams could only be dreams of aeroplanes. All their goods, their land, and even their bodies were looted.

The declaration by Sultan Hamengkubuwono X on 20 May 1998 was not very long. It only had four points, urging all the people to support reformation, and calling on everyone to be sensitive to and to defend the people.

Short as it was, it was enough to make the people feel they were no longer orphans. The sultan and the kraton were their father and their mother, who were able to hear their sobs, to struggle with them, and always to urge them never to lose hope.

M Dwi Marianto is a PhD graduate from the University of Wollongong, now teaching at the Indonesian Art Institute of Yogyakarta, ISI.

Inside Indonesia 56: Oct-Dec 1998

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A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar

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