Friday, June 20, 2003

Black May 1998: 5th Commemoration (17 of 24)

Ignoring May 1998: Impunity continues
By Ati Nurbaiti, Staff Writer, Jakarta

The Jakarta Post (June 16, 2003)

An infant has been born out of rape, at least one rape victim is mentally ill and 20 others have died, including by suicide. Many still mourn for missing relatives. This is just a small part of the legacy from the May 1998 riots, which has joined other mysteries in our history.

To little enthusiasm, last month the National Commission for Human Rights announced it was reopening the investigation into the riots. On June 3 the National Commission for Violence Against Women released a new book on the tragedy, Disangkal! Tragedi Mei 1998 Dalam Perjalanan Bangsa (Denied! The 1998 May tragedy in the nation's course).

It is painful reading. One survivor says she hopes to become a plastic surgeon to help other women -- she was one of two women forced by four men into a van on May 14, 1998, where their breasts were cut off.

In the tragedy, at least 1,200 died, mainly in burning shopping centers in a number of cities. A week after the riots, triggered by the fatal shooting of four students at a peaceful rally, Soeharto stepped down as president.

There has been little hope of solving the mystery of May 1998, for a number of reasons. First, cases piled on top of other cases, both old and new, leaving no room to decide which to forget and which to pursue.

The "reform" euphoria quickly faded in the face of so much to cope with -- the announcement by the human right's commission that it was reopening the case came amid still confusing plans for next year's elections and a war in Aceh, while the economic crisis is yet to abate.

The challenge in reopening the case will precisely be because it is a strong candidate to be forgotten. What makes the 1998 riots difficult to face is that it involves sexual assault and rape, mostly targeting Chinese-Indonesians.

It means facing the issue of racism, which is so uncomfortable that "it wouldn't do" to open up the wounds of victims and survivors. This is despite the fact that a team set up by the government concluded that the May tragedy was well-planned and systematic. Sociologist Ariel Heryanto has written that "rape has not been part of a public expression of hatred", echoing observations that the perpetrators likely had some prior conditioning.

Ariel and others have pointed out how the May riots were a horrible display of political violence, though far from new, and that racism happened to be a convenient tool.

Yet while there are many confirmed testimonies of the May riots being orchestrated, many here may think that precious time and energy may be better spent on things other than reopening a case that will nag them about their feelings on racism.

The attacks on Chinese-owned shops and Chinese-looking women were surely based on the assumption of existing prejudices against this minority, and what offended people was the impression that people resented the Chinese so much that they raped them.

It was rather surprising and deeply saddening that this feeling of offense dominated public discourse, oblivious to how the victims and survivors must have felt. The evil masterminds of the riots must have watched the ensuing mudslinging with glee. Many pointed to the "exclusivity" of the Chinese resulting in "social jealousy", others said that the riots and reports of hundreds of gang rapes were meant to discredit the majority of society, the Muslims.

The debates went on and on while such arguments failed to explain why women were sexually assaulted -- though a few feminists attempted to point out that rape is a regular, ancient tool for conquering the enemy -- and activists quietly fumed over the fact that scores of urban poor, who died in infernos, were stigmatized as "looters", buried in unmarked graves and forgotten.

Much of the coverage centered on locating evidence of reported gang rapes, and resentment grew against activists when the fact-finding team finally came in with the official number of "only" 56 rape cases. Numbers became vital -- in one alleged rape case a woman turned out to have been "only stripped in public, not raped", went one report. Activists were also accused of having a hidden agenda because they would not identify victims of rape and sexual assault to investigators or the media.

The emotional discourse ignored not only the victims and survivors, but greatly hampered the public's capacity to understand the vulnerability of our society to ugly political games and provocation and the violence that these entailed.

Another related issue left unaddressed is the vulnerability of women here to be used as tools to silence the enemy, as has occurred in conflict areas across the country.

That vulnerable people are repeatedly selected for convenient targets was not lost on women -- the above book reminds us how leading women such as psychologist Saparinah Sadli faced then president B.J. Habibie and demanded a public apology. On June 16 1998, Habibie declared that the government condemned and apologized for the riots and the losses entailed; that the government would immediately form a joint fact-finding team; and that the government would immediately set up a National Commission for Violence Against Women, later chaired by Sadli.

In a recent interview with The Jakarta Post, Father Sandyawan Sumardi, among the activists assisting survivors of the May riots, said that survivors no longer hoped for compensation or to have the stigma of being labeled looters lifted from them. They even seem to hold out little hope for justice. Since May 1998, as the country witnessed an unprecedented spread of communal conflict, the survivors seemed to know better.

The priest said the survivors wanted "a total renewal of the whole system in society, so such a tragedy would not happen again in the future and the circle of violence would stop".

They seem to be aware of the common sense of despair that anyone will be held accountable for even one of the many vicious crimes here. Without investigations into such violent incidents as the May tragedy, the circle of violence indeed continued -- masses can be mobilized, at least to riot, while a few dozen groups can be trained to victimize any convenient target, even to merely create chaos, to make a point.

And, of course, they walk free.

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