Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Reopening the May Riots & Power Struggle
September 23, 2003 11:31 PM, Editor
Laksamana.Net - As the trial of 11 military officers accused of involvement in the 1984 Tanjung Priok massacre got underway on September 15, the ad hoc team investigating the Jakarta riots of May 1998 released its final findings on the mass unrest allegedly engineered by some of ex-president Suharto’s powerful generals.
Head of the investigation team, Solahuddin Wahid, told reporters the May 13-15 riots were the result of systematic planning, attested by the facts that most of the violence was targeted at “a particular ethnic group” [read – ethnic Chinese] and that authorities failed to contain the mayhem, thus allowing the riots to spread.
The ad hoc team, which was set up by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), identified some 20 military officers and civilians as being behind the disturbances. But the team has so far declined to publicly name the officers believed to have instigat ed the riots.
Despite that, the team’s findings could pave the way for bringing to trial several generals, including former Armed Forces commander Wiranto and former Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) chief Prabowo Subianto.
If the Attorney General’s Office follows Solahuddin’s recommendation to form an
investigation team with a view to bringing prosecutions, it’s possible that the full extent of the old personal rivalries among the high-ranking generals of Suharto's inner circle could be revealed.
During the 32-year authoritarian rule of Suharto, certain scheming generals at times engineered unrest and chaos as a means of bringing about the downfall of their rivals. This was part of the power struggle within the military structure and hierarchy.
It goes without saying that a couple of weeks prior to the downfall of Suharto on May 21, 1998, the personal rivalry between Wiranto and Prabowo intensified when it appeared inevitable that the long- serving president would be forced to resign.
The killing of four students at West Jakarta’s Trisakti University during an anti-Suharto rally on May 12 was the trigger that sparked three days of mass riots in Jakarta that left 1,217 people dead, mostly looters trapped in burning buildings. Dozens of ethnic Chinese women and girls were victims of a campaign of systematic mass rapes.
In the aftermath of the violence, rumors flew about that the chaos had been orchestrated by Prabowo to show that Wiranto was incapable of maintaining law and order.
Many pundits at the time speculated that Prabowo had unleashed the violence in an effort to usurp Wiranto’s control of the Armed Forces. They later felt their speculation was justified after Prabowo was discharged from the military in August 1998 for his role in the abduction and torture of anti-Suharto activists.
This accuracy of this theory is debatable, given its tendency to hold Prabowo as the sole pe rson responsible for masterminding the May riots.
Wiranto, who at the time of the unrest held sway over district military commands in the nation’s most vital provinces, later signaled that the riots must have been provoked to a certain extent, at the very least by the people who had incited the mobs on the streets.
In August 1998 he acknowledged that elements of the military were “involved” in the riots. At one point he reportedly said the identities of those behind the rioting were known, although their names could not yet be made public.
But ironically it was Prabowo – the man most often blamed for the Trisakti killings and the May riots – who was the first officer to mention the possibility that the violence had been deliberately instigated to destabilize the government.
Prabowo's side of the story, which was later reported in Tajuk magazine (15/10/1998), naturally suggested he was not the mastermind behind the riots as had been impl ied by some of his military rivals. His strong denials of any wrongdoing were further elaborated in an extensive interview published in the May 3, 2000, edition of the now defunct Asiaweek magazine.
So who did Prabowo think was responsible the riots? He didn’t mention any names, but his close friend Achmad Sumargono did.
Sumargono, a strict Muslim with strong anti-Chinese views, is chairman of the Indonesian Committee for World Muslim Solidarity (KISDI). He did not preclude the possibility that former Armed Forces commander and intelligence chief Benny Murdani was the mastermind behind the riots, pointing to a secret meeting he had allegedly held prior to the unrest.
However, no hard evidence has ever been put forward to give any great credence Sumargono’s theory.
For the sake of historical comparisons, says one military analyst, much of the violence that took place during the Suharto era can be reasonably explained as the result of pow er struggles within the military.
A case in point is the mayhem that erupted in Jakarta on January 15, 1974, when a massive student demonstration against the corruption of Suharto and his generals transformed into deadly anti-Japanese rioting.
The riots, which were to become known as Malari (Malapetaka limabelas Januari - the January 15 Disaster), marked a power struggle between two powerful Army generals within Suharto's inner circle: Ali Murtopo and Sumitro.
Sumitro, who at the time had been deputy Armed Forces commander and chief of the Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order (Kopkamtib), was forced to resign after the riots.
Sumitro's undoing (or miscalculation) was his lenient attitude toward student protests in the months preceding Malari and his refusal to suppress the mass demonstration on January 15. His behavior raised suspicion that he had sought to erode the position of rival officers, such as intellige nce chief Murtopo and Armed Forces commander General Maraden Panggabean.
In his 1994 autobiography ghostwritten by Ramadhan KH entitled Dari Pangdam Mulawarman Sampai Pangkopkamtib (From Chief of the Mulawarman Regional Military Command to Chief of the Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order), Sumitro suggested that his enemies within military had plotted against him and prevented him from acting instantly to regain control of the situation in Jakarta.
The first official investigation into the 1998 May riots commenced on July 23, 1998, with the formation of a Joint Fact-Finding Team (TGPF) chaired by Golkar politician Marzuki Darusman, who at the time was a deputy chairman of Komnas HAM.
The team was composed of 19 members, including military officers, senior civil servants from various ministries, Komnas HAM members, and representatives of non-government organizations.
One important piece of evidence came f rom the head of Armed Forces’ Strategic Intelligence Agency (BIA) Major General Zacky Anwar Makarim, who told the team that since April there had been indications that something in the order of the May riots was brewing. He said BIA had warned the military authorities, including those in Jakarta, of the possibility of large-scale unrest.
Makarim added that sensing an escalation on May 11, BIA had warned that whatever happened there should be no martyrs. The following day, the four Trisakti students were killed and immediately dubbed as “martyrs of the reform movement”.
It was probably Makarim's statement on his early warnings to military authorities that prompted TGPF to recommend the prosecution of two Army generals.
One was Jakarta Military Command chief Sjafrie Sjamsuddin, who was responsible for the capital city’s security. TGPF ‘s final report accused him of having failed to take sufficient action to prevent and contain the rioting, which could h ave been anticipated.
The other general named by TGPF was Prabowo. The team’s report also concluded the rioting had been organized to create an emergency situation with the aim of enabling Suharto to invoke special powers granted to him two months earlier by the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) to take any action deemed necessary to restore order.
TPGF announced its findings on November 3, 1998. Almost five years later, Komnas HAM’s ad hoc investigation team announced findings that were essentially little different.
Komnas HAM chairman M.M. Billah said the team’s findings confirmed that security officers failed act appropriately during the May riots. "There was also a tendency to let the riots occur by not diverting the mobs away from the riot scenes or preventing the riots from spreading,” he added.
The one crucial difference between TGPF’s findings and Komnas HAM’s findings apparently lies in the identity of the masterminds.
TPGF , by referring to a meeting of between 20 and 30 people that had taken place on the evening of May 14 at Kostrad headquarters, tended to view Prabowo as logically the person most likely to have organized the riots.
The official summary of the TGPF report did not directly refer to him as the mastermind, but it recommended the Kostrad meeting be investigated "to find out the role of Prabowo and other parties in the process which led to the riots”.
Among those who attended the meeting were: Prabowo, Kostrad chief of staff Kivlan Zein, Special Forces (Kopassus) chief Muchdi Purwopranjono, Golkar politician Fahmi Idris, Prabowo’s brother tycoon Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Prabowo's friend Fadli Zon, Prabowo’s tycoon friend Farid Prawiranegara, prominent lawyer and legal aid activist Adnan Buyung Nasution, outspoken poet W.S. Rendra, tycoon Setiawan Djodi, and Indonesian Legal Aid Institute Foundation (YLBHI) member/TGPF member Bambang Widjojanto.
Prabowo later pointed out that the report was illogical for suggesting he could have masterminded riots that started on May 13, by holding a meeting on May 14. He also pointed out that some of those who attended the meeting were opponents of the Suharto regime (such as Buyung, Rendra and Widjojanto).
In contrast to the TGPF report, the ad hoc team’s report – on the basis of testimony from Buyung – said the May 14 meeting at Kostrad headquarters was initiated by Setiawan Djodi for the purpose of finding a solution to prevent the rivalry between Wiranto and Prabowo from becoming more strained.
If the ad hoc team views Buyung's testimony as accurate, there is less reason to implicate Prabowo as one of the most likely plotters of the May riots.
To many observers, it appeared somewhat absurd that TGPF had questioned a meeting at which one of its own members – Widjojanto – had been present. His explanation deserves special attention. According to Widjojanto, he had the impression that there had been several other meetings before and after the one he had attended.
This means that if one assumes Prabowo was the mastermind of the riots, it would be seriously misleading to focus solely on the May 14 Kostrad meeting to find out who instigated the unrest.
A source within the ad hoc investigation team told Laksamana.Net that several high-ranking officers who were questioned, tended to put the blame on Wiranto rather than Prabowo.
Whatever the truth might be, Wiranto and Prabowo will likely be back in the limelight over the May riots again. Especially as both of them are now taking part in the race to become Golkar Party’s candidate for next year’s presidential election.
While Prabowo’s reputation is still very much in tatters due to the insinuations made after the May riots and his role in the abductions of anti-Suharto activists, Wiranto has much more to lose. His image would suffer great damage if he were to end up in court accused of responsibility for the deadly May riots. And that could leave the door open for Golkar chairman Akbar Tanjung, a convicted corruption felon, to become the party’s presidential candidate.
But like so many other turbulent turning points of Indonesia’s history, much of what took place behind the scenes during the May riots still remains shrouded in mystery and the truth may never be told.