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20 Years Later, Victims of Indonesia's May 1998 Riots Are Still Waiting for Justice
Venting their anger over price increases, rioters hurl stones at an ethnic-Chinese owned shop in Medan, northern Sumatra, Indonesia (May 6, 1998).
Image Credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

20 Years Later, Victims of Indonesia's May 1998 Riots Are Still Waiting for Justice

 
 

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the political reform era in Indonesia and the 20th anniversary of the 1998 May Riots. These riots occurred in the context of the Asian Financial Crisis, where food shortages and huge rates of unemployment led to widespread civil unrest in several urban centers across the archipelago.

This unrest and the ongoing demonstrations in which the women’s movement and student movement were intensely involved eventually led to the fall of President Suharto and the New Order Regime — but not before more than a thousand citizens lay dead, scores of ethnically Chinese women had been gang raped, and the politicization of ethnic sentiment had been brought to a crescendo, creating and deepening wounds that remain unhealed and largely unacknowledged until today.

The widespread sexual violence directed against ethnic Chinese women during the riots and the ongoing denial of the reality of these attacks is a dark chapter in Indonesia’s history that, without acknowledgement and resolution, risks reigniting ethnic violence in an increasingly fragile sociopolitical environment. The anti-Chinese ethnic violence that exploded in 1998 was the culmination of a legacy of centuries of racist divisions orchestrated by the Dutch colonists and related scapegoating tactics that the colonial power used to divide and subjugate Indonesia.

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An independent team, Volunteers for Humanity, was formed in response to the riots, its members being human rights activists drawn from nongovernmental organizations. This team released a report that confirmed that at least 168 cases of sexual violence had occurred during the riots and that the majority of these cases were rape directed at ethnically Chinese women.

An additional government mandated Joint Fact Finding Team was formed in July 1998 and tasked with investigating the riots. The team recorded 85 cases of sexual violence in their report, a figure that included only independently verified reports. Similarly to the Volunteers for Humanity report, the Joint Fact Finding Team found that the majority of sexual violence cases constituted gang rape.

The denial of the sexual violence that has been voiced by individuals and groups at all levels of society can in part be attributed to victims’ unwillingness to report their cases to law enforcement and the absence of visible witness statements. Victims choose to remain silent for a swathe of reasons that encompass a mistrust in the law enforcement bodies, a fear of re-victimization and stigmatization at the hands of society, an unwillingness to stir up old trauma, and a lack of faith in a criminal justice system that remains unequipped to respond to crimes of sexual violence.

In November 1998, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the then-United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, completed an official mission to Indonesia. During this mission and in her subsequent report, Coomaraswamy highlighted the issue of sexual violence in the May 1998 Riots and whilst she could not provide a definite number of sexual violence victims it was stated in her report that “the pattern of violence that was described by victims, witnesses and human rights defenders clearly indicated that such rape was widespread.” The UN special rapporteur met with victims in secret and reported that none of the victims with whom she spoke had brought their cases to police. Coomaraswamy also documented and collected a number of menacing letters and death threats aimed at the Chinese population and witnesses of violence that threatened the recipients with rape, murder and mutilation. These letters were aimed at terrorizing the Chinese community, silencing them through fear and pushing them to leave the country.

The denial of the occurrence of the sexual violence has been both a cause and an effect of victims’ silence and thus far no perpetrators of sexual violence have been brought to justice. Mariana Amiruddin, a current commissioner of the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan), explained that “the denial is especially dangerous as it demonstrates that the state does not acknowledge these events.” Mariana continued on to explain that “fighting against collective amnesia of the event is crucial to ensure that such a tragedy is never repeated.”

In many ways, the very existence of Komnas Perempuan is a physical and concrete reminder as to the reality of the sexual violence that occurred in May 1998. A group of women activists who met with President Habibie in July 1998 demanded that he respond to and take responsibility for the sexual violence that occurred in the May Tragedy. Habibie responded by doing three things: issuing an apology to all victims of the unrest, forming the Joint Fact Finding Team, and pledging to form Komnas Perempuan as a specialized and independent government institution with the mandate to work toward the elimination of all forms of violence against women in Indonesia.

Komnas Perempuan remains committed to working for and alongside the victims of the tragedy but recognizes that with victims remaining understandably silent, bringing perpetrators to justice is a major challenge. In this period of remembrance, serious attention needs to be paid to the lessons the nation can draw from the horrific events of May 1998 to uphold survivors’ rights and guarantee the tragedy cannot be repeated.

A 2008 Komnas Perempuan report about the tragedy states that victims from 5 to 50 years old were raped and that these rapes were not only limited to penile penetration but encompassed forced oral sex and sexual torture such as the insertion of foreign objects into the victim’s vagina. These forms of rape and sexual violence fell outside of the narrow definition of rape contained in the Criminal Code in 1998 and continue to be inadequately covered by the law today.

Coomaraswamy, in her report released almost 20 years ago, urged the government to accelerate the law reform process and introduce changes to bring the Criminal Code into line with standard international standards and introduce sexual harassment legislation. These suggested amendments included extending the narrow definition of rape in the Criminal Code and changing the legal procedure, which places substantial burdens on the victim that hinder their access to justice.

Twenty years on, many of the recommendations from the independent UN special rapporteur and Komnas Perempuan still have not been implemented. Law reform remains essential. This reform is necessary both as a recognition of victims’ past suffering and as a guarantee to protect future victims’ rights and a commitment to preventing gender-based violence that remains rampant in Indonesia.

The government should speedily pass the Elimination of Sexual Violence Bill, which is currently being debated in parliament. The Elimination of Sexual Violence Bill as it was originally formulated as a piece of draft legislation that provides for comprehensive protection and reparation measures for victims of sexual violence. The bill focuses on preventing the occurrence of violence, and outlines new sentencing options for perpetrators as well as ensuring victims have an increased access to justice.

In the climate of increasing political contest and rise of identity politics, acknowledgement of the tragedy and the reality of the widespread occurrence of gang rapes targeted against ethnic-Chinese women during May 1998 is needed. This acknowledgement is not only necessary as a part of victim’s rehabilitation but also as a step to guarantee that similar events will not be repeated in the future.

Jack Britton is a translator, researcher and freelance writer currently embedded with the Indonesian National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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