Six Years After, May 1998 Tragedy Still Unresolved
By Ridwan Max Sijabat, Jakarta
The Jakarta Post (Thursday, May 13, 2004)
After six years, three governments and two independent investigations, the May 1998 riots remain unfinished business for the citizens of this nation.
The National Commission on Human Rights has found indications of systematic gross human rights violations in the tragedy, which took place between May 13 and May 15 of that year and recommended an ad hoc human rights trial, but families of the victims have been kept waiting for the perpetrators of the crimes to be brought to justice.
The House of Representatives during the current Megawati Soekarnoputri administration declared the riots just "ordinary crimes".
But, I Ketut Murwati, the director of human rights violations cases at the Attorney General's Office, said his office was waiting for new evidence from the rights body's team tasked with investigating military and police officers for their alleged role in the tragedy.
The 16-member independent team set up by the rights body in March 2003 was not able to get the suspects to respond to multiple summonses, in order to formally recommend that the government set up an ad hoc human rights tribunal in line with Law No. 26/2000 on human rights.
According to the law, all suspects can be summoned by the team if the House proposes the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal which must be endorsed by the government.
Jakarta turned into a giant battle field when riots paralyzed the capital city and many other cities such as Medan, Palembang, Surakarta and Surabaya. Thousands of people vandalized mostly Chinese-Indonesian-owned buildings and looted shopping malls.
More than 1,000 people were killed and more than 60 women and girls, mostly Chinese-Indonesians, were victims of gang rapes and other sexual violence during those three days of bloodshed, arson and turmoil.
The riots were precipitated by the shooting of four Trisakti University students on the afternoon of May 12.
A joint fact-finding team set up by the government alleged that the riots were part of a scenario engineered by former president Soeharto's son-in-law Prabowo Subianto, then the Army's Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) chief and most recently a Golkar Party presidential candidate before he lost the nomination, in his attempt to have martial law declared, which would allow him to take power amidst the national leadership crisis that ended with Soeharto's resignation on May 21.
To this day, no legal action has been taken against Prabowo over his alleged roles in the tragedy, including orders to abduct and "disappear" many prodemocracy activists in 1997 and 1998, and his secret meeting with civilian figures at the Kostrad headquarters when the tension was at its peak on May 14.
Both the government's fact-finding team (TGPF) and the rights body's team are of the same opinion that the riots involved intelligence personnel and that someone had hired the rioters. At the very least, they were grave crimes of omission as some members of the security forces were ordered back to their barracks and the security officials allowed the chaos to continue unabated.
The rights body's investigation team said current Golkar presidential candidate Gen. (ret) Wiranto, then the Indonesian Military (TNI) chief, Prabowo and the Democrats' Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, then the TNI chief of territorial affairs, were three of dozens of military and police officers who were responsible for security at that time.
The team's many questions remain unanswered, particularly as to why Wiranto, Prabowo and many other generals went to Malang, East Java, to attend a Kostrad ceremony, while Susilo met with Muslim intellectual Nurcholish Madjid when the riots were escalating.
Wiranto has said that like the East Timor human rights case, the investigations are merely aimed at discrediting him and sabotaging his presidential bid.
In his book Wiranto's Notes: Witness to the Storm, Wiranto shifts the blame elsewhere for the tragedy, saying he had asked then chief of National Police Gen. Dibyo Widodo, former chief Jakarta Military Maj. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin and former City Police chief Insp. Gen. Hamami Nata to take necessary measures to restore security and order, but apparently they did not.
Wiranto has publicly declared that he must be innocent of any wrongdoing in the May tragedy, otherwise Solahuddin Wahid who led the investigation into the case would not have chosen to become his running mate in the upcoming presidential election.
Prabowo, in a book entitled Politik Huru-Hara Mei 1998 (The Politics Behind the May 1998 Riots) written by his close friend Fadli Zon, shifted the responsibility to Wiranto, who he says never answered phone calls on May 14.
Maswadi Rauf, a professor of political science at the University of Indonesia said human rights abuses linked to the military in the past would remain unresolved if either Wiranto or Susilo were to win the presidential election.
Probes into the May 1998 tragedy
Institution Date Findings/Suggestions Govt Response
1. TGPF July-Oct, 1998
- serious crimes [govt reponse: none]
- sexual violence [govt response: none]
- further investigation needed
2. House (DPR) Jan-July 2002
- ordinary crimes
- violators must be tried in court
3. Komnas HAM March-Sept. 2003
- gross human rights [govt response: none]
- establish an ad hoc rights tribunal