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

II. The Violence

The horrific violence in Jakarta on May 13-15 appeared at the time to have been sparked by the shooting of four Trisakti University students by police snipers the day before. President Soeharto was out of the country, attending a conference in Cairo. Eyewitness accounts of groups of young men arriving in ethnic Chinese neighborhoods by the truckload and setting fire to shops--and admissions by some that they were paid to take part in the burning and looting in some Jakarta neighborhoods--indicate that at least some of the violence was organized. It is not clear, however, who exactly the organizers were or what their motivation was. One widespread belief is that those in the military close to Soeharto were worried about the increasing force of student protests and wanted to provoke violence so that martial law would be declared and the protests quelled. An alternative but much less frequently heard speculation is that the anti-Soeharto forces themselves sparked violence in the belief that it would help topple the president. Whatever the reason, the ringleaders used anti-Chinese sentiment to mobilize mobs of looters to devastating effect.(2) The best estimate of the human and property toll is 1,198 dead, including twenty-seven deaths from gunfire; untold numbers injured; widespread rape, of which more below; 4,083 shops and 1,026 private homes burned, and forty shopping malls destroyed, all within a period of less than two days.(3)

The figures on numbers of dead and wounded and property damage cannot adequately convey the terror that many ethnic Chinese experienced. Human Rights Watch met with one young woman who jumped from the fourth floor of a building to escape a mob; both her feet were smashed, and one heel is permanently damaged. Another man had his hands torn up when he climbed over a barbed wire fence holding his three-month-old daughter to escape rampaging youths yelling anti-Chinese chants.

The government seems to have accepted that the terror was deliberate. On June 2, the National Commission on Human Rights issued a statement condemning the violence and suggesting it had been organized. A Joint Fact-Finding Team (Tim Gabungan Pencari Fakta or TGPF) was appointed by the government on July 23 to examine allegations that the violence was planned; the team includes members of the armed forces, various government agencies, and rights advocates and is chaired by the widely respected deputy chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Marzuki Darusman. On August 3, General Wiranto, commander of the armed forces, publicly apologized for the armed forces' failure to prevent violence, and in a speech on August 21, he acknowledged that soldiers were involved in the violence itself, without going into any detail.(4) On August 13, the Jakarta metropolitan police announced that sixteen people under arrest were suspected agitators of the May violence, "based on the testimony of 1,919 looters netted during and after the riots."(5) In conversations with Human Rights Watch, however, activists expressed doubts that any of the sixteen were the actual organizers.

If any part of the military is found to have organized the violence or to even to have deliberately let it get out of control, the May riots can no longer be seen as simply another episode of anti-Chinese sentiment erupting on the streets. One observer wrote that a distinction had to be made between "racially motivated riots," which these were not, and "racialized state terrorism," which it was.(6)

The impact of the May terror has been incalculable. Tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese have left Indonesia for Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Those who have stayed have in some cases sent their children abroad; Malaysian schools in Sarawak reported a major increase in Indonesian Chinese students. They have also tried to barricade themselves against future outbreaks, leading some neighborhoods in Jakarta to look like armed camps. Both President Habibie, immediately after the riots, and the Jakarta governor, Sutiyoso, have encouraged ethnic Chinese to form vigilante squads and arm themselves as a deterrent to future attacks. "Use any weapon -- clubs, spears, sabers, scissors, anything -- to defend yourself because those who might come to plunder in your neighborhood will certainly not come with bare hands," Sutiyoso told a group of Chinese on August 14. He reminded them that if they chose to purchase firearms, air rifles, or stun guns, the weapons would have to be licensed by police.(7)

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