From email@example.com Sun May 31 21:52:27 1998
Date: Sun, 31 May 1998 19:50:40 -0600 (MDT)
Subject: [INDONESIA-L] DIGEST - The May Riots
The May riots
29 May, 1998
[For Refugee Review Tribunal, 29 May 1998]
The riots in Jakarta 13-15 May were probably the worst Indonesia has
ever seen. In proportion almost equally devastating riots took place
in Medan and surrounds (4-5 May), Palembang (13 May), and Solo and
surrounds (14-15 May, with at least 19 dead). When President Suharto
resigned, these events were somewhat overshadowed in the media. But
they deserve much more attention, if only because they were so
destructive. At the moment we have only sketchy Indonesian language
newspaper reports. I have not had the opportunity to study even these
Jakarta's death toll was initially put at 499 (army spokesperson, 17
May), then at 293 (police spokesperson, 23 May). A team led by the
well-known Jesuit Sandyawan Sumardi said on 18 May that 1188 had died
in Jakarta and Tangerang, including deaths by shooting and beating.
The same report also mentioned Chinese being stripped and raped by
rioters. Most deaths were of looters trapped in burning supermarkets.
Coordinating Minister for Finance and Economy Ginanjar Kartasasmita on
about 18 May put the damage in Jakarta at Rp 2.5 trillion (about US$
250 million at prevailing rates). He said 2479 shop-houses had been
damaged or destroyed mostly by fire. (The shop-house is the typical,
small, almost invariably Chinese, retail business upon which urban
society depends). In addition he listed 1026 ordinary houses, 1604
shops, 383 private offices, 65 bank offices, 45 workshops, 40 shopping
malls, 13 markets, 12 hotels, 24 restaurants, 11 parks, 9 petrol
stations, 11 police posts. Then there were 1119 cars, 821 motorcycles,
8 buses, 486 traffic signs and lights. The police later (22/5) gave
considerably lower figures: 1344 buildings of all kinds, 1009 cars,
Dr Chris Manning, an economist and population expert at ANU, told a
seminar in Canberra on 27 May that as many as 20-30,000 Chinese
entrepreneurs may leave Indonesia permanently as a result of the riots
in Jakarta and elsewhere. He pointed to the serious impact this would
have on business in Indonesia.
This is destruction on a massive scale. Older people said it reminded
them of the revolutionary interregnum in 1945 after the sudden end of
Japanese control, the so-called 'bersiap' period. Citizens formed
vigilante squads to defend their neighbourhoods.
Let's look at a map of Jakarta and see what happened. Immediate
trigger for the Jakarta riot was the shooting of four students at the
elite Trisakti University in Grogol, West Jakarta, on 12 May. The
shootings shocked democracy activists around the country. They had
been demonstrating persistently and entirely peacefully (with Medan as
the only exception) for weeks against the Suharto government. After a
commemorative ceremony at the campus ending late in the morning of
Wednesday 12 May, rioting broke out around the campus. Some reports
mention lots of angry shouts against the armed forces.
Rioters - the young urban poor, not students - spread out in several
directions and start setting fire to car showrooms, hotels, shops, a
hospital. The following important roads are mentioned: Kyai Tapi,
Gajah Mada, Hayam Wuruk, Daan Mogot, Latumeten, Pesing, Cengkareng,
Kedoya arterial, Kebon Jeruk, the Grogol-Kali Deres road, also Jalan
Juanda behind the presidential palace, and the Cawang-Grogol flyover.
Electronics shops in Glodok, the Chinatown of Jakarta, are looted. All
shops in nearby Senen close down, and pretty soon all business and
traffic in the entire city close down. There is also an angry
demonstration in the elite business district of Jl Sudirman, a long
way to the south of Grogol.
Rioting mostly spreads westward toward and into Tangerang - past the
international airport. A hospital is attacked, as are two churches in
Tangerang. Cars are stopped on tollways and checked for Chinese - many
cars are put to the torch on the tollway, whose operators are soon
told to abandon their post. Even though no one is collecting fees, the
toll roads are soon deserted. Tens of thousands of rioters far
outnumber the security forces, who mostly stay away from trouble
rather than risk defeat or a bloody massacre.
The rich flee to luxury hotels at the airport, Jalan Thamrin in the
city heart, in Jalan Sudirman and at Ancol.
Tangerang to Jakarta's west, like Bekasi to its east (where rioting
breaks out the next day) is Jakarta's industrial belt. Hundreds of
labour-intensive, temporary factories erected by foreign capital
looking for cheap labour and a quick return on investment have become
magnets for an urban proletariat. These are the people worst affected
by the economic crisis - bearing the brunt of the huge increase in
unemployment (an additional 13 million this year alone?).
Rioting goes on right throughout the night. The next day, Thursday 14
May, it continues in Hayam Wuruk and Gajah Mada, Jalan Samanhudi,
Suryopranoto ('Krekot'), but spreads to many other areas of Jakarta
than just West Jakarta where it had started. On this day the large
malls seem to become particular targets - this is where many looters
die when fires are lit and they are unable to escape. The worst is
Yogya Plaza in Klender, East Jakarta, with 174 charred bodies
Places mentioned in the reports now range all over Jakarta: Kebayoran
Lama-Cipulir-Cileduk, Jalan Kosambi Raya, Cengkareng Ring Road, Jalan
Salemba, Jalan Sahari (including tycoon Liem Sioe Liong's house),
Jalan Matraman, to the east of Freedom Square, up to Pluit and the
Tanjung Priok harbour area, down to Tanah Abang, Senen, Cikini, and
east to Kalimalang, Kranji, and Bekasi. There is even some in Depok in
By Friday 15 May the city is exhausted but rioting continues in a new
area: Cinere, near the elite Blok M area of South Jakarta. Actions on
some toll roads continue - Kampung Rambutan- Cawang, Grogol-Kampung
Rambutan. Mostly, Jakarta is counting its dead. Scavengers are having
a field day with the rubble. Thousands mill around to observe the
damage, leaving police edgy about the potential for more trouble. Over
a thousand looters have been arrested in the later stages of the
The rioters are the urban poor who have had no political
representation in the New Order. They have almost no political
leadership other than the sometimes agitational preaching in hundreds
of small mosques. Yes, they are anti-Chinese. More generally they are
alienated by the entire modern economy. They take it out on the
inaccessible symbols of the new rich - banks, automatic teller
machines, supermarkets, car showrooms, hotels, the cars of the
Chinese. The retail revolution that is sweeping Indonesia has
repeatedly angered those whose livelihoods remain dependent on more
traditional markets, which were not nearly as badly affected.
Were the riots provoked? Perhaps. I know it would't be Indonesia
without conspiracy theories aplenty. It takes more to convince me than
it does some others that provocation is not a deep-seated urban myth.
But this time I think there are some indications of deliberate
manipulation by some within the security forces. In my opinion this
may well have happened particularly on Thursday 14 May, when rioting
spread from West Jakarta over the whole city and when the malls were
targeted - pretty ambitious undertakings for young bloods.
There are some eyewitness references, for example in the Sandyawan
report, of well-built men arriving in trucks at flash points and
shouting loudly that Chinese shops should be burned.
Most evidence is circumstancial. Some observers point to the motive,
often heard before, of deflecting crowd anger away from the armed
forces (caused by the deaths of the students at Trisakti) towards the
Human Rights Watch Asia has established in a recent report (already
distributed to the RRT) that a Chinese scapegoating discourse certainly
exists among certain military officers. Its aim is usually to deflect
anger away from the ruling elite (although in the past it has also
served to cause difficulties for rivals within the elite responsible
Last January I was not convinced that the elite anti-Chinese discourse
could actually have affected events on the ground in the remote places
where riots broke out, and I tended to play down its practical
importance. But on 13 and 14 May the connection is more
straightforward. These riots were politically charged in a way that
the January riots in the regions were not. Tension was high among an
elite painfully aware that Suharto's regime was crumbling.
The late general Soemitro and others have given detailed accounts of
the way riots in Jakarta were manipulated under conditions of
similar tension in January 1974. Allegations that LtGen Prabowo and
his colleagues (Muchdi of Kopassus and Sjafrie Syamsuddin of the
Jakarta Area Command) were involved in provocation seem to be
convincing even to armed forces commander Gen Wiranto.
Gross irresponsibility such as this on the part of senior military
officers of course runs clean counter to the normal military interest
in stability. But I believe it is quite possible that in moments of
dire emergency within the regime, in the absence of better ways of
resolving internal conflict, short- term consideration may well
over-ride the normal sense of responsibility.
Conspiracy theories are of course difficult to prove. Yet much hangs
on whether they are true or not. If true, then the Chinese minority
has even less protection than that provided by a merely incompetent
Gerry van Klinken, editor, 'Inside Indonesia' magazine.