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Rainbow peace


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by Jennie M. Xue and MJ Rahardjo

Sixteen years ago in mid-May, we were in Jakarta. We saw firsthand the burning of properties and cars on the streets. Masses of people looted houses and stores. Until this very day, the alleged masterminds and the alleged perpetrators have not been prosecuted.

Despite being an allegedly planned political show of force by certain “unknown” individuals, it felt like a pogrom toward Chinese-Indonesians. 

The “official” causes, approved by the Indonesian government, were: economic problems, including shortages of food, and mass unemployment. 

The riots were widespread nationwide. The cities most affected were Medan, on May 4-8; Jakarta on May 12-15 and Surakarta on May 13-15. An estimated 1,000-plus people died, 168 women were publicly raped and the economic damage cost more than Rp 3.1 trillion (US$269 million). It was indeed a colossal tragedy.

The May 1998 riots were an important milestone for Indonesia, when millions of people’s minds shifted from one level of consciousness to a higher one. 

For those who grew up under the relatively safe and prosperous Soeharto administration, this tragedy was a total wake-up call. 

Many Chinese-Indonesian youngsters at that time, who had not experienced this country’s other tragedy of 1965, considered themselves “Indonesians”, yet their ancestral lineage proved to be a “liability”. 

Some of my women friends who live outside Indonesia said, “I was shocked to find out that my Chinese ethnicity put me at risk of being raped and brutally killed.”

Another friend always carries her passport in her purse, just in case she needs it to immediately flee the country. It created a deep trauma among Chinese-Indonesians in general and Chinese-Indonesian women in particular.

That this event marked the end of the New Order regime, after 32 years in power, and the birth of Indonesia’s Reform era was incomparable to the ending of a generation’s innocence regarding humanity. 

Psychological trauma among millions of Indonesians was achieved within only a few days. 

The collective trauma of the Indonesian people has not been properly addressed, especially since the masterminds of the riots have not been legally tried and imprisoned.

It is a fact that the world is not entirely white or black; it is grey. Reading about the riots in books or watching them unfold on TV news was nothing compared to experiencing them firsthand. 

Sixteen years later, many people still remember the gory details of those few days in May. 

Those who lost their loved ones or were raped or lost their homes and property will never forget the incident. Those who were lucky to be spared may eventually forget or perhaps have already forgotten the incident.

To some people, the month of May is just the same as any other month in the year, which is sad given the many human lives and innocence lost. So many souls have been wounded, yet there is no closure in sight.

For these reasons, the future president, whoever he is, must investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice, as well as the masterminds, if the government expects to be regarded as a respecter of human rights and humanity.

The “dullness” of Indonesia’s image in the international arena is the result of years of human rights violations and negligence. 

Indonesia is notorious as a place where religious intolerance and ethnic pogroms thrive; where underage migrants are detained, political prisoners are criminalized and refugees are mistreated, according to the US-based rights group, Human Rights Watch (HRW). 

The police, local governments and central government have shown little interest in ensuring the safety and security of those who are considered “weak” in Indonesian society: Those whose religious affiliations are not considered “mainstream”, such as Ahmadis and Shiites, women and children, workers, political prisoners, displaced persons and other minorities. But the whole world is watching.

The future president is likely to focus on issues related to the economy. However, human rights, health care and education are urgent issues that need attention because a strong economy must be backed with a strong respect for human rights, a healthy citizenry and a well-educated younger generation. 

We need a new president who will prioritize respect for human rights and the safety and security of all Indonesians without reservation. It’s time for Indonesia to be credited as a mature nation in the global constellation of geopolitics.

Psychological trauma among millions of Indonesians was achieved within only a few days.


Jennie M. Xue is an author, columnist and essayist based in Northern California. MJ Rahardjo is an author and essayist based in Jakarta. He is the author of Sanih, Kamu Tidak Perawan! (Sanih, You are not a Virgin!) and Seksualitas dan Ayat-Ayat yang Dipelintir (Sexuality and Misinterpreted Verses).

The Jakarta Post, May 13, 2014

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