Racism and the Indonesian riots

Something terrible is happening in neighboring Indonesia, but we Filipinos, self-absorbed as always, have hardly taken notice or, even less, expressed deep concern for this nation at our doorstep.  While we were busy counting the votes last May, Jakarta was literally on fire. Chinese women were being gang-raped.   Shops, malls, and private homes identified as ethnic Chinese were being looted.  Vehicles and houses were being burned.

A few days ago, the Manila Times carried the terrifying story of a young Indonesian Chinese woman who was raped during the riots. “My name is Vivian and I am 18 years old,” her account begins.  “I have a little sister and brother.  As a family we live in what is supposed to be a ‘secure’ apartment.  At 9:15 a.m., May 14th 1998, a huge crowd gathered around our apartment.  They screamed, ‘Let’s butcher the Chinese!’  ‘Let’s eat pigs!’’

A mob of about 60 men entered the building and scoured every floor looking for Chinese residents.  All the women they found, including little girls, were gang-raped.  Five crazed men took turns savaging Vivian’s little sister, Fenny.  When she spat on the face of one of her attackers, she was stabbed repeatedly and bled to death.  Vivian herself passed out when 7 rapists dragged her into a room. Her attackers raped her in front of her parents and little brother.

The Indonesian sociologist, Ariel Heryanto, in a recent article for Jakarta Post, describes the magnitude of this continuing  tragedy thus: “1198 lives (of which 27 died from gunfire) were lost, 150 females were raped, 40 shopping malls and 4,000 shops were burned down and thousands of vehicles and houses were set afire simultaneously in 27 areas in a capital city of 10 million inhabitants in less than 50 hours.”

Most of the victims were Chinese, but curiously, the dead also included pribumi or native Indonesians who participated in the looting of shopping malls and found themselves locked in from outside while the buildings were put on fire by instigators.  There are reports that these looters were bused in from villages outside Jakarta and were then methodically let loose in the shopping centers owned by the Chinese.

Such reports belie the widespread view that the riots were spontaneous eruptions of racial hatred for the Chinese occurring in the wake of the collapse of the Suharto presidency and the breakdown of social order in key cities.  The attacks had been swift and systematic, and, while they rode on anti-Chinese sentiments and were primarily directed against the Chinese, they were also meant to be spectacles of panic and terror aimed at the entire Indonesian public.

These are not emotional outbursts of simple people, Heryanto argues, they are calculated acts of state terrorism.  These are not raciallymotivated mass riots; they are the outcomes of racialized stateterrorism.  The distinction he draws permits us to better understand the strategy being used by Indonesia’s rulers to preserve the dictatorship while dispensing with Suharto.

Heryanto is convinced that the simultaneous attacks on the Chinese community were launched by soldiers.  “Eye-witnesses described the riot instigators as heavy-built males with crew-cut who wore military boots. Some rape victims saw security uniforms in the van where the rape took place.”  Although such accounts in themselves are insufficient to draw firm conclusions about the perpetrators, the events, Heryanto reminds his readers, must be seen in the light of existing knowledge about Indonesia.

He notes: “The violence was just too perfect to leave any doubts about the narrow range of potential suspects. To have a better perspective, the following points are helpful. First, while no civilian groups in the affected areas had either the power or experience to take any active involvement in such violence, the Armed Forces has had both in dealing with trouble spots of the nation: Irian, Aceh, and East Timor. Second, the violence last May was not the first of its kind in Java. This century has witnessed periodic attacks against the ethnic Chinese. But none of these attacks appeared to have been conducted spontaneously by local, angry, and poverty-stricken masses of other ethnic groups.”

Heryanto’s analysis shows what the Indonesian state is prepared to do to divert public attention away from the crimes of Suharto, his cronies and corrupt generals.   By triggering “racialized unrest,” the military accomplishes two things: first, it provides a controlled setting for a political catharsis that preserves rather than destroys the coercive state; and second, it induces a general feeling of vulnerability and insecurity in the whole population which works against sustained social mobilization for reform.

Indonesians are among Asia’s gentlest people.  They are in many ways less impulsive than us Filipinos. Yet ironically, their  political history has been marked by the most brutal and violent convulsions. Heryanto’s thesis is that this should not be taken as manifestation of a contradictory national character, but as the contingent effects of the state’s cynical  manipulation of its people.

To compare ourselves with a neighboring nation at a tragic time like this may seem a perverse way of showing solidarity.  But it is important to see that exploitable differences based on race, religion or ideology lie just beneath the surface of our everyday lives.  We may consider ourselves lucky that the worst of our leaders have injured the nation mostly by their incompetence and thievery than by insidious acts of demagoguery.  But the danger is always there.


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