Friday, May 31, 2002

Black May 1998: 4th Commemoration (10 of 17)

Trisakti, four years after
The Jakarta Post (May 13, 2002)

On this day, May 13, as readers open these pages, gatherings will no doubt be held at various places throughout the country to commemorate the events that took place exactly four years ago, which shook the nation out of its lethargy and set the movement for democratic reform rolling.

To be more precise, however, that day, May 13, 1998, merely marked the peak of violence in a string of events that ultimately forced then president Soeharto from power. That happened eight days later, on May 21. For those who are not familiar with the events of that time, what happened, in the proverbial nutshell, was this: On May 12, with the student movement across the country clearly showing signs of coagulating and student unrest spreading everywhere, students of Trisakti University started one of the largest antigovernment demonstrations in front of their campus in West Jakarta. It was, by all accounts, despite the noise, a peaceful demonstration. However, as the students started to return to their campus, four of them were shot dead by sniper fire.

Their funeral the following day, attended by thousands, set in motion a violent flood of long pent-up discontent during which, for two days, hordes of people, consisting mostly of Jakarta's urban poor, looted and burned all they came across in one of the largest rampaging sprees the city had ever experienced. Chinese-owned shops and business establishments bore the brunt of the rage. This was the trigger that set in motion the final downfall of Soeharto.

But while not everyone is agreed on what precisely transpired during and immediately following those incidents until the fall of the erstwhile Indonesian autocrat, it seems, with hindsight, that it was the sacrifice of the lives of the four Trisakti students that gave the final impetus to set the reform movement moving.

Having reached that conclusion, it seems proper for us at this point to ask ourselves whether that sacrifice was not made in vain. The point is that for most of those who were directly involved in setting the reform movement rolling, precious little has been achieved today, four years after what has become known as the Trisakti Case or Incident?

It is true that the realities of life normally mean that change occurs slowly. Nevertheless, it is frustrating these days to see how our politicians handle affairs of state as if no radical change had taken place. Group interests still rule and the power of money still seems to be as strong as ever.

In places such as Maluku, where sectarian strife has raged for years and taken thousands of lives, no satisfactory resolution of the conflict seems to be in sight as, again, group interests vie for dominance.

As legislators bicker among themselves and with the executive, the forces of resistance against amending the 1945 Constitution appear to be left hanging
in the balance and conservatism is hampering even the formation of a commission on the Constitution.

For those who are currently in a position of power, the message from all of this is that those who fail to heed the lessons of history are prone to repeat the old mistakes. History has proven that even in a developing country such as Indonesia, democracy, with all its shortcomings, is still the most workable system of government. In a case where democracy appears to be hard to achieve, the remedy should not be sought via a return to authoritarian rule, which would only sweep existing problems under the proverbial carpet.

Let this lesson therefore be learned. Too many sacrifices have already occurred at the altar of Indonesian democracy to betray those who made them.

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