Thursday, May 20, 2004

Black May 1998: 6th Commemoration (23 of 40)

May monument won't wipe away grief, pains of riot victims
By Ati Nurbaiti (a staff writer at The Jakarta Post), Jakarta
The Jakarta Post - Opinion (Wednesday, May 19, 2004)

Much thought and energy is put into the design of any monument. Thus, those who planned a structure to mark the May 1998 tragedy went through several discussions, including those with survivors and their families, before deciding on the "Brotherhood Monument" commissioned to the renowned sculptor Nyoman Nuarta.

Yet, somehow the monument's design brings about a sense of sad detachment from the experience of the survivors and their families, and indeed, the mark on the nation itself.

The design portrays two men, supposedly one indigenous and the other of Chinese descent, holding up a big, heavy national symbol of the garuda (eagle) bird bearing the coat of arms of Pancasila state ideology and the slogan, "Unity in diversity".

All is well, everyone's happy now and living in harmony.

But since when was everyone so happy?

In the riots of May 13 to May 14, 1998, violent gangs set shopping centers on fire, killing almost 1,000 people in a number of cities, raping and murdering their own fellow citizens. We know they are all still out there, along with those who masterminded the series of incidents, who remain protected under impunity.

Successive governments have failed to follow up on the recommendations of the official fact-finding team for further investigation. So, while there is a bitter consolation in the team's conclusion: that the riots were likely organized, and thus not likely to happen any day; the fact remains that ordinary men and women are not entirely safe in their homeland, depending on the whim of some evil people.

In May 1998, it was those of Chinese descent who were assaulted. They had no idea why their homes were razed or why they should be gang raped. The urban poor were another group of convenient, disposable "objects" -- like the women victims, they are unseen and unnamed in the "May monument" design. Another time, another place, mindless people, even though a handful, could again be mobilized against any other suitable, innocent and silent target.

The Chinese minority was such an easy, silent target, more so their women apart from the poor who were burnt alive in stores and stigmatized as "looters". But was the May tragedy, which followed the May 12 shooting of students in Jakarta, really a conflict between indigenous Indonesians and Chinese Indonesians?

How could one proclaim that everyone has forgiven and forgotten, when nothing has been done to relieve the grief of hundreds of families who lost their loved ones in building infernos, or the pain of rape victims, some who even got pregnant and refused to undergo abortion for fear of God.

What kind of nation can claim to be civilized when scores of its people are yet to overcome their trauma, in the absence of signs of any investigation let alone a sign of anyone brought to accountability for what they endured?

Although the organizers of the ceremony marking the site of the future monument acknowledged that one victim's story did not represent all of them, the monument design seems to reflect the message of the booklet distributed at the commemoration. It is the message from victim Iwan Firman, who after surviving major burn injuries, had attempted suicide a number of times. He describes how he slowly manages to live in peace with himself -- and it this feeling which seems to have been recklessly generalized into a "forgive and forget" attitude.

Many people could learn from Iwan. But a more broad deliberation on the design might also have revealed other distinctive feelings of citizens who were not as directly affected as Iwan -- such as shame, disbelief and anger at the occurrence of such a sick incident in the heart of the capital, and the fear that it might not be the last. At a discussion last week on the May riots, speakers said that answers were absolutely needed on what really happened and why, and who was responsible.

No wonder President Megawati Soekarnoputri at the May 13 ceremony in downtown Jakarta saw no need to comment on the nagging questions of who should be held accountable, and when, for those dark days. Activist Sandyawan Sumardi immediately accused the President and organizers from the Chinese Indonesian Reform Movement (Parti) of "a systematic attempt at historical amnesia", Kompas daily reported.

Monuments either aim to commemorate, celebrate -- or, indeed, as in many instances of history writing -- to wash away history. Any monument genuinely wanting to serve as a testimony and/or reflection of a national tragedy would involve a lengthy, thoughtful deliberation of a broad scope.

Hence the scores of entries for the belated Vietnam Veterans' Memorial before it was decided to have the names of servicemen and women who died and went missing in action in the Vietnam War engraved along a black granite wall, now on display in Washington DC.

And in Choeung Ek in Cambodia, a big lump forms in your throat at the sight of thousands of skulls, silent witnesses to unbelievable cruelty at the hands of the victims' fellow countrymen -- just like the victims of our horrible May legacy.

The above shrines seem to try to provide a means of contemplation and healing for all those affected, and for others who may find a lesson from the tragedies.

Yet the design of the "May monument" which "celebrates reconciliation" brings to mind the typical attitude of members of the elite, as seen in other cases of the violation of human rights in the country -- just forgive, forget and don't open old wounds that may sting those who can still wield influence and power.

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