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

III. The Rapes

No one has questioned the figures used for deaths or property damage because it is presumably possible to count bodies and buildings. Even so, it is not clear whether the estimates of deaths during the May riots are accurate; the point is that they generated no debate. The statistics on rape are much more difficult to collect, because in some cases, those attacked and their families do not want to come forward and in others, the women involved have fled the country. But many in Indonesia, including the country's top intelligence officer and journalists associated with the newspaper Republika, are questioning whether any rapes in fact took place in mid-May, because no victims have come forward. The skepticism was heightened by revelations, published in the Asian Wall Street Journal on August 20, that photographs that began circulating on the Internet in early July, allegedly of ethnic Chinese rape victims, had in fact been taken from reports on East Timor and even from pornographic websites. Such exploitation serves no one's interests, least of all the women involved, and only helps those who wish to dismiss the entire issue of rape as propaganda. It also serves to weaken the credibility of any individual testimonies that emerge.(8)

The chronology of the rape debate is as follows. Immediately after the riots, word went out over the Internet that Indonesian Chinese arriving in Singapore were reporting witnessing rape. In early June, human rights groups began reporting that they were receiving reports of rape from victims and their families, often by telephone. A number of organizations had opened hotlines, and a steady stream of calls came in, some reliable, some not. In some cases, the reports were impossible to check; the callers were terrified of reprisals by security forces or had moved away. Human rights groups reported that many women were seeking psychiatric treatment after assaults, and a Catholic-run shelter for unmarried mothers was reportedly housing rape victims.

On July 13, 1998, the Volunteer Team for Humanity, led by a well-known priest, Father Sandyawan, published a report on sexual violence against ethnic Chinese women. The report listed a total of 168 cases, of which rapes, as opposed to other forms of sexual abuse, reported from Jakarta between May 13 and 15 alone totaled 130 cases. At the time the report was issued, accounts were coming in from many different sources, often by telephone, with several NGOs compiling their own data and providing it to the Volunteer Team for Humanity. There was so much horror over initial reports and concern about protecting the victims that the documentation process was somewhat chaotic, with key details missing or the source not clarified or follow-up questioning lacking as to how precisely the person providing the information had come by her or his facts. In some cases, it was clear a rape had occurred but not clear that it was connected to the May riots; in others, it was clear that a passerby had seen a woman crying uncontrollably but not at all clear that the woman in question had been raped.

As those working with the team began to realize the extent of the confusion, they began a process of checking and cross-checking, and, as of late August, were beginning to produce credible, verifiable cases. The number of verifiable cases from mid-May was expected to drop below the 130 originally reported, perhaps even substantially below, but questions will always remain as to how many cases went unreported, how many victims fled abroad, and how much a campaign of intimidation and harassment discouraged women from speaking out. It is instructive that women who were raped during military operations in 1990-91 in the province of Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, are only now, more than seven years later, beginning to come forward. The statements of Indonesian officials that local groups had faked their reports may only have heightened the unwillingness of witnesses to testify.

Information that some of the victims had become pregnant was also difficult to substantiate. A report that appeared in Kompas on July 12 from a "Dr. Wid" who spoke of a sixteen-year-old patient being pregnant from one of the May rapes was taken by the journalist from the Internet; it may well be true, but given the Asian Wall Street Journal revelations about the faked photographs, it cannot be taken as hard evidence until someone can talk with that doctor directly.(9) On the other hand, a Catholic nun in Jakarta told Human Rights Watch that a student approached her about her twelve-year-old sister made pregnant after a rape in mid-May, but after the nun, a gynecologist, offered to provide medical assistance, the student said that the family preferred not to have any visitors.

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