Indonesia: The Damaging Debate on Rapes of Ethnic Chinese Women

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Table of Contents
The Violence
The Rapes
Government Statements: From Condemnation to "Fabrication"
Ending Discrimination
Ending Violence Against the Ethnic Chinese

IV. Government Statements: From Condemnation to "Fabrication"

The statements from Indonesian government officials on the rapes have evolved from tentative criticism to condemnation as international anger increased to skepticism to outright denial that any rapes occurred.

On June 24, the new metropolitan Jakarta police commander, Lt. Col. Edward Aritonang, urged rape victims to report to the nearest police station where police officers would guarantee the confidentiality of their testimony. The next day, the governor of Jakarta met with leading members of the ethnic Chinese community and urged them to help clarify the rape issue as there was still contradictory information. On June 29, armed forces commander General Wiranto gave a press conference and stated that the military had gone to twenty hospitals that had treated victims of the May riots. Of 630 victims, twelve had died, eighty-seven had been kept in for treatment, and the rest were able to go home, but there was not a single case of rape.

As domestic and international pressure rose, the tone of government statements changed. On July 3, Tutty Alawiyah, the minister for women's affairs, acknowledged that rapes had taken place, condemned them, and said that making the victims feel secure was more important than raising issues of evidence.(10) On July 7, a spokesman for the National Commission on Human Rights said, "We can say without any doubt whatsoever that on those dates [May 13-15] mass rape of ethnic Chinese women occurred that was widespread, systematic, and sadistic."(11) On July 8, Minister Alawiyah announced the formation of a "Special Team on Violence Against Women" and said that while she could not cite a figure for the number of victims, she knew from information gathered from twenty hospitals that violence against women had in fact occurred. She also announced the establishment of two telephone hotlines for information on sexual violence.(12)

The next day, the National Commission on Human Rights issued a "Statement on Sexual Violence, Including Rape, Perpetrated on Ethnic Chinese Women and Other Indonesian Citizens." The statement called on the government to apologize for failing to provide protection to its citizens and delaying too long its response to the rapes. Marzuki Darusman, deputy chair of the commission, said the absence of witnesses was understandable, given the psychological trauma experienced by those concerned.

On July 15, President Habibie, at the behest of twenty-seven powerful women, issued a statement, saying that he had listened to the report from women representing a group called "People Opposed to Violence Against Women," containing "clear and authentic proof" of violence that had occurred in mid-May, and that he deeply regretted this violence which was "not in accordance with the cultural values of the Indonesian people" and condemned it in the name of the government and all Indonesians.(13) (It is a sign of how far respect for the office of the president has fallen that his statements have had virtually no bearing on the debate.)

By the end of July, however, a major counteroffensive was underway. On July 29, a "social observer" named Eddy Noor made a statement in Jakarta that reports of mass rape were groundless and only an effort by disgruntled groups, implying the ethnic Chinese, to blacken the image of Indonesia as a way of taking revenge for the losses they suffered in the May riots.(14)

A policewoman, First Lieutenant Yenni Setyo Winindyati, stated in an interview with a major Jakarta daily on August 2 that she had tried to work with members of the Volunteer Team and the National Commission of Human Rights in good faith but got no cooperation, and she now did not believe that any rapes took place.(15) The same day, an article appeared in another daily, Republika, again quoting Eddy Noor, chiding the press for simply reprinting data from the Volunteer Team without checking its accuracy and saying the rape story was a deliberate attempt to destroy Indonesia's international image and bring down the government.(16)

By August 17, the national police commander, General Roesmanhadi, was threatening to prosecute the organizations that had been most vocal in publicizing the rape issue on charges of spreading false rumors.(17) On August 24, Lt. Gen. Moetojib, chief of state intelligence, emerged from a meeting with President Habibie to say that there was no evidence that rapes had occurred and reports of sexual abuse may have been fabricated. "I have come to the conclusion that the rumors were spread for political purposes to defame Indonesia in the international arena and to cause the disintegration of national unity," he said.(18) Finally, General Wiranto himself told the Cabinet on August 26 that the police, after investigating 103 reports of rape, found no evidence to substantiate the claim that rape had occurred. The police went to one apartment building in Pluit, North Jakarta, where four rapes had allegedly taken place. There, Wiranto told the press, "All the police investigation has uncovered is that the alleged victims were evacuated to Singkawang, Manado, and Minahasa by Father Sandyawan, and it is doubtful if any rapes actually took place."(19)

Women's rights advocates, in the meantime, were beginning to persuade a handful of witnesses to come forward, but they said their efforts were set back by the government's skepticism.

Indonesia: The Damaging Debate on Rapes of Ethnic Chinese Women - Table of Contents