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The May 98 Riots: Behind the Scenes Back To Menu

Updated: 09/08/99

The May riots, which seem more and more terrible as further facts emerge, were cynically orchestrated. The case for this accusation has been gathering momentum rapidly in the last fortnight, with the arrest of a three star General on abduction and torture charges. There are journalists, international and domestic, working on finding the missing pieces, and if they do they will have one of the stories of the decade. Meanwhile, the charge sheet against the perpetrators now looks like something from Bosnia. In addition to arson and murder must be added systematic gang rape of Indonesian Chinese women and girls. One government agency, the Human Rights Commission has now admitted that many rapes, as many as 160,  were committed, in the homes and business places of the victims, in front of family members. In some cases, the victims were subsequently burnt to death. The police, however, claim there is no evidence. The police in Indonesia are part of the Army, by the way.

The President, Habibie, is calling for wealthy and middle class Indonesian Chinese to return to Indonesia. He therefore demonstrates one of a politician's greatest strengths: the ability to credibly propose ludicrously contradictory and sometimes obscene ideas at the same time.




Latest news: Prabowo being investigated (98-08-03)

Sydney Morning Herald

Last week the military (ABRI) arrested six members of the special forces, including a three star general, in connection with the abduction and torture of anti-Soeharto activists. The kidnappings have long been a key tactic in the suppression of political opposition under Soeharto's New Order, and ABRI has long been suspected (or, as it is more pedantically said, "elements within ABRI"). At last, the military itself is investigating. The arrests show that the fight between the pro-Soeharto special forces and the mainstream ABRI factions is moving into the endgame, with the good guys in charge. The Special Forces, Kopassus, were commanded by Soeharto's son-in-law, who has now been sidelined, and is probably headed for further disgrace. Some activists are still missing.


There has always been plenty of anecdotal evidence that the May riots were organised by military figures, presumably Kopassus. Here is my anecdotal contribution ... my fiancee's father was travelling in a small bus when traffic ground to a halt due to the outbreak of the riots. He and his fellow passengers decided to complete their trip on foot. An elderly man, he rested frequently during his two kilometres walk. In that time, he saw empty trucks travelling along the road, recruiting young men with the promise of 20000 Rupiah to join the riots (the minimum monthly wage is about 150 000 Rupiah). Stories like this are common.

The scope of the riots was, as I have said, stunning. So many completely separate areas of Jakarta were simultaneously destroyed. Yet, some obvious areas were untouched (the Blok M shopping malls for example; through a colleague who is neighbour to a general, I heard that several billion Rupiah was paid to the army to secure these areas).

Strangely organised anarchy Back To Menu

But the picture gets truly sinister in the detail. Many buildings were completely destroyed, far beyond the damage normally inflicted by riots here. Yet neighbouring buildings were untouched. I have seen instances when a row of shops, all part of the same building, are completely destroyed except for one in the middle, or vice versa.

The total damage inflicted required a destructive force hard to imagine, yet in the midst of this terror, the mobs were somehow incredibly sensitive to which businesses have Chinese owners and which don't. They nearly always got it right. Soeharto family holdings, normally a favourite mob target, seem to have escaped fairly well, from what I have seen. This is a bit odd; usually things like the Timor car dealerships are the first targets of the stone-throwers (the Timor car was a car company controlled by Tommy Soeharto, the youngest son. Under a pretty weak premise, it was granted the right to import fully built cars from Kia Motors, Korea with no tariffs. Everyone else has tariffs of more than 100%. However, despite being so cheap and mechanically a fine car, it bombed in the market. Indonesians were unhappy with the lack of a service network. So with thousands of unsold cars, the Government decreed that all government purchases of vehicles must be Timor. This still didn't help, and the IMF finally got rid of the deal. Now, Kia is broke, and the scepticism of the Indonesian consumer was proved correct).

We now have many many witnesses telling of young men looking very much like members of ABRI directing the destruction. It initially sounded a bit like a conspiracy theory, and the most popular explanation still has many points supported only by circumstantial evidence. However, the story that senior military figures organised the riots has so far gained enough credibility to result in a three page feature in the Far Easter Economic Review (edition July 26 1998) and a front page story in the International Herald Tribune (some time in the week July 20 - 25, I forget when exactly)..

There are allegations supported by credible witnesses and covered in these two publications that some rape victims were subsequently burnt to death, and others have been sent photographs of the attack as intimidation. Intimidation has always been a very successful tool here; it is only in the last few weeks that victims of political abductions and torture have publicly spoken of their ordeal, although this practice has undoubtedly occurred over the last twenty years.

Here is the popular theory behind the riots. Some of it is still conjecture.

Background Back To Menu

Soeharto came to power in 1965 in the wake of anarchy (student protests, labor and communists activism, division in the military, armed succession movements in some provinces). The trigger was a supposed Communist coup attempt. The coup seems very much like the burning of the Reichstag but there is no evidence available directly connecting Soeharto. However, there isn't much evidence connecting it to the Communist Party either (which already had a big influence over President Sukarno; what was their incentive for a coup?). In any case, it had the same effect as the Nazi plot. At the time, Soeharto was in charge of Kopassus, the Army's special forces (or strategic reserve). It was deployed in Jakarta due to the unrest. After the "coup" attempt, Soeharto took charge. Sukarno, a beloved hero of the struggle against the Dutch, was placed under house arrest, and died in this state.

The New Order had arrived. Anarchy ruled for the next 12 months, and a slaughter took place up and down the islands of Indonesia. Between 500,000 and 2 million people were killed, mainly suspected communists, or anyone accused of this.

Here is how the CIA in 1968 described this episode:

"In terms of numbers killed, the anti-PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] massacres rank as one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s."

[quoted in A Nation in Waiting, Adam Schwarz, 1994, page 20]

Recently Back To Menu

Soeharto never really controlled ABRI, the armed forces, but their objectives of national stability and cohesion coincided with Soeharto's interests of power and wealth accumulation. Soeharto did weaken the low level of military opposition through appeals to greed, clever divide and rule tactics, and support for military concerns, most notably the muzzling of political Islam. This lead to one of the most shameful episodes in ABRI's history, at least on Java, when a unarmed Muslim protest and riot in 1984 was gunned down by soldiers. It is known as the Tanjung Priok massacre; hundreds were killed, including religious leaders, and this event has not yet been publicly investigated. At the time it was considered an acceptable price to pay for the suppression the politicisation of Islam. Islam was probably the only potential channel for dissent impossible for the New Order to contain; to keep the genie in the bottle Soeharto was prepared to allow mass murder. The Army feared Islam due to the stress it would place on national unity: non-Muslim parts of Indonesia would have a good case for succession in an Islamic Indonesia. The Army's fear of extremism was paranoid; Soeharto's fear that organised moderate Islam was a real challenge to his power was correct (his actions are very similar to the brutal suppression of the Catholic church in some central American states in the 1970s and 1980s).

By 1998, his son in Law, Prabowo, was in charge of Kopassus, the same position Soeharto himself had in 1965. However, Soeharto had to increasingly compromise with moderate Islamic forces over the late 1980s and early 1990s, and there was a growing distance between Soeharto's leadership and the ABRI leadership. Then the Asian crisis hit. Soeharto's terrible leadership lurched from one mistake to another, causing a terrible economic meltdown. By April, 10 months after the crisis hit, his government had lost all credibility. Students were marching daily across the nation for the third month calling for political reform and Soeharto's resignation, millions were being thrown into poverty and the prices of goods were soaring. Riots and disturbances were a daily event, although nothing like what was to come. The parallels to 1965 were obvious to all.

ABRI ponders Back To Menu

It is certain the senior ABRI figures, who were independent of Soeharto, were internally questioning their support. The student protests met with no serious attempts at suppression by Wiranto at any time during their three months of escalation, even when effigies of the president were burned, the parliament house grounds occupied, and direct accusation of corruption were made in public (even a hint of these actions in the past would have met with sudden and brutal suppression). Pro-Soeharto factions, notably the Strategic Reserve & Kopassus, under the leadership of Prabowo, would have seen this as a serious threat to Soeharto Inc. The theory goes that a complete breakdown of law and order would have the same effect as the attempted "coup" of 1965. One outcome was Soeharto replacing Wiranto with Prabowo, or possibly the calculation was that Prabowo would take over the Presidency directly. Thus we have the motive for the organised riots in mid-May. The first of the last dominoes falling in the sequence leading to the riots, murders and rapes was the lifting of fuel prices to meet IMF conditions (about six months late). This gave fresh energy to the student protests, and increased their popular support. Next was the killing of four Trisakti University students at the end of a protest march near the centre of Jakarta. The killings occurred as the crowd was peaceably dispersing. One of the victims was killed inside the University grounds, and was not even a participant in the street march. All the killed and wounded were hit in the upper body region, indicative of trained snipers. It is almost universally believed that Prabowo's men were responsible for this, although so far the official blame has fallen upon the police. However, the case for the police being responsible has involved some serious fabrications (the initial motive for the police shooting was that one of their men was being killed by students. The alleged officer did in fact die, but due to a heart attack, and so many witnesses placed him well away from the students that this evidence was withdrawn). The video images analysed by firearms experts show that the police were not using live ammunition (their weapons do not recoil). Ammunition apparently recovered at the scene is of a type used by the police, although none of the bullets have been matched to individual police firearms.

The Student Shootings Back To Menu

The reaction to the student killings was swift and ominous. The entire city became on edge, and a tremendous sense of grief was felt. The student protesters suddenly become connected to everyone. I remember that is was at this point the people at Philips stopped working and spent the next day or two watching live television reporting of the funerals, and of building events around the country. One of the dead students was the relative of a prominent member of ABRI.

Soeharto was in Egypt at the time, attending a meeting. Even as the tension obviously rose, he stayed away.

The riots happened over the next few days; although the students themselves withdrew to their campuses. I'm no student of riots, but normally you would expect a chain reaction; trouble in one area spills to another area. I have witnessed a tense situation before, in the 1997 elections. This was a time of riots, but the riots were localised and involved minor damage, although this period of rioting was at the time described as the worst in 20 years. What we saw on the two days in May was like a bomber attack. Riots simultaneous hit many, many areas. Most blatantly, even a modern residential satellite city 20 kilometres outside Jakarta, with no surrounding population of low income kampungs and connected only by a toll road (Lippo City) was attacked by bussed-in looters. Needless to say, this idyllic settlement has never before been in the remotest danger of riots. It is owned by an Indonesian Chinese magnate.

The theory is that the riots were an orchestrated attempt to discredit the military. Certainly, Wiranto had no idea of what was going to happen. He was not even in Jakarta. The military response was disjointed and ineffectual, although even with prior notice and best organisation they would have been hard pressed to respond. The police were largely confined to barracks after the Trisakti University shootings.

After the Jakarta riots died down, on day two, even worse destruction occurred in other large Javanese cities.

In Jakarta, well over 1000 bodies were recovered, although many more must have died. As we now know, systematic gang rapes also occurred.

So far, the organised rapes seem to have been limited to Jakarta. The gang rapes are a new feature of Indonesian riots.

The only good thing to come of this is that all these stories are now being covered in the press. In fact, the change in the media has been remarkable. Just today I read a letter to the editor comparing the East Timorese struggle against Indonesia with the Indonesian struggle against the Dutch; the author of this letter (an Indonesian) called for Indonesia to allow the East Timorese immediate independence. Six months ago this letter would of course not have been published. The newspaper would be closed down, the publishers and author put in jail as traitors. But more importantly, most Indonesians in Jakarta would have strongly disagreed with the author. They really believed that Indonesia was a force for good in East Timor. However, the credibility of the army is ruined, and stories of mass murder and abuse seem very plausible now. Abuses in East Timor now seem credible to people in Jakarta. Tonight, the army announced 1000 troops will be withdrawn from East Timor.

The great risk (and tragedy) for Indonesia is that ABRI is by far the most credible and coherent organisation the nation has. The ABRI commander, Wiranto, is a popular figure who is seen to be serious about restoring the army's credibility. He has an important task. Today, perhaps more than ever, ABRI is Indonesia.

And here is a postscript: Soeharto has been granted more than $USD 2 million to buy a house. Sukarno, the former president who was so loved that this year 500 000 people gathered to commemorate his death, died in house arrest. After a few days consideration, Soeharto has requested that the money be postponed. Actually, he is supposed to be given a house, but he already has some nice houses so he asked for the money instead.

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Comments. Page modified: August 11, 2003

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