25 Years of Reform: Stop Empty Promises for Women in the May Tragedy

25 years have passed, the May 1998 tragedy has claimed lives and left deep trauma for Indonesian women. Not just as an annual moment or empty promises to end women's human rights violations.

The events of May 1998 left deep scars and trauma for women, especially victims of sexual violence.

The Joint Fact Finding Team/ TGPF explained this in their report. A total of 52 people became victims of rape, 14 became victims of rape with assault, 10 victims of sexual assault/abuse, and 9 experienced sexual harassment. It was also noted that the majority of victims of sexual violence were women with Chinese  ethnicity and were cross-social class.

“The Fact Finding Joint Team for the May 1998 riots identified at least 85 cases of sexual violence that occurred during the riots. 52 of them were rapes, which were carried out in groups and targeted ethnic Chinese who during the riots became targets of hatred,” said Komnas Perempuan chairman Andy Yentriyani in his remarks while commemorating the 25th anniversary of reform at Pondok Ranggon TPU, East Jakarta, May 13, 2023.

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The memory of sexual violence in May 1998 is also closely related to Ita Martadinata, a human rights activist who was brutally murdered. At that time, she was part of the Volunteer Team for Humanity,  and was about to testify at the UN General Assemby regarding the mass rape cases that occurred at that time. 

Ita was found lifeless in her home in a tragic condition in October 1998. The fateful incident was only a few days after the Volunteer Team for Humanity and many other human rights organizations revealed that several team members had received death threats for trying to assist international investigations into sexual violence against Chinese women during the May 1998 riots.

No wonder it became a terror for many other victims. Until now, women victims of sexual violence in the May 1998 tragedy are still haunted by fear and trauma. The stigma still lingers after what happened to them. They don’t even dare to speak out, choosing to remain silent because they don’t have a safe space and are worried about the risks they will face.

May 1998 was a very bitter political history for Indonesian women

Female activist Ita F. Nadia recounted that a 13-year-old May rape victim died because her family gave her Baygon, a mosquito repellent. The family could not stand the tremendous pressure & terror after the rape. After drinking Baygon, the girl died. The story of the rape that occurred in May 98 was not discussed much when people returned to discuss the May 98 tragedy. Even though there were more than 152 women who were victims of rape at that time.

May 1998 was a very bitter political history for Indonesian women. Many women from ethnic Chinese became victims of rape.

Andy Yentriyani once stated that rape was a way of threatening and controlling women in May 98. Ita Nadia and Andy Yentriyani stated this in an online discussion held by the GERAK Perempuan Network on May 16, 2020. 

Other things that happened at that time were enforced disappearances, killings, riots, and many things before the fall of the New Order, especially on 13-15 May 1998. 

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Unfortunately, the fulfillment of the victims’ rights of the tragedy is still far from expectations, especially for the women victims of sexual violence in those fateful days.

Again, the momentum of commemoration of the May 1998 tragedy fell in a political year when politicians and state officials were eager to spread promises so they could sit in their desired seats. To be noticed, guarantees regarding investigations into human rights violations (HAM) cases have also begun to be heard again in the 25th year of the May 1998 Tragedy. But then they will forget. Then we as a society may also be carried away to forget. Meanwhile, the victims will carry bitter memories throughout their lives.

25 years have passed, don’t let the memory of one of the darkest tragedies in Indonesia disappear without clarity. We need to know what happened in May 1998, how it affected the victims, and what other false promises the government has made regarding this incident for the past 25 years.

The May 1998 Riots and the ‘Looter’ Stigma

The May 1998 tragedy was an escalation of the socio-political dynamics of Indonesian society at that time. Various events had taken place sometime before the disaster during the New Order era, marking the fall of President Suharto’s reign.

Indonesia was in turmoil. The 1997 election chaos, the abduction of activists, the economic crisis, the relentless student protests, and the deaths of Trisakti University students due to shootings during demonstrations led to various events that occurred on 13-15 May 1998. Now these dark days are known as the May 1998 Tragedy.

Riots broke out in some places, especially in Jakarta. According to data from the volunteer team’s version reported by TGPF, at least 1,217 lives were lost due to the riots. Most died from burning, and others from sharp weapons. According to data from cities outside Jakarta, 33 people died, and 74 were injured.

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Meanwhile, according to Polda Metro Jaya/Polri’s version, 451 people died in Jakarta, and 30 died outside Jakarta. Kodam Jaya’s version is also different; 463 people died, including security personnel, and 69 others were injured. Lastly, the regional government of DKI recorded 288 fatalities, and 101 were wounded.

The difference in the recorded number of fatalities occurred because many of the victims had been evacuated by the community before the government started the evacuation, according to  the TGPF report reported by Amnesty International. Hence, many victims were not recorded in official government reports.

After that incident, a stigma emerged that the people who died in the middle of the riots were ‘looters.’ In fact, the Joint Fact Finding Team (TGPF) findings show that more than a thousand people who died at that time were ordinary citizens who were lured and framed or who acted to find out and help victims in the middle of the riots.

Awaiting The Government Accountability

It’s been 25 years, and the May 1998 Tragedy still leaves painful scars on the victims, survivors, their families, and those closest to them. Meanwhile, many people are still waiting for the accountability of the government for this dark tragedy. 

On the one hand, the ratification of the Law on Crimes against Sexual Violence (UU TPKS) brought fresh air regarding legal regulations on the experiences of women victims. This is a promising breakthrough after the harrowing events that women experienced in May 1998. One of the key recommendations from the May 1998 Tragedy in the form of changing the rape article in the revision of the Criminal Code has also happened.  

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On the other hand, commemorating its 25th year, Komnas Perempuan, a state institution formed from the history of the May 1998 Tragedy, asked the government to listen to the voices and fulfill the victims’ rights. Especially women and their families. The government is also asked to make comprehensive policies to ensure similar incidents do not recur, facilitate recovery broadly, and provide guarantees of protection and freedom from stigma.

“Including other efforts to help victims recover. We recommend that the government and the PPHAM Team formed by President Joko Widodo use Komnas Perempuan’s experience and substantively engage women victims to follow up on the recommendations from the PPHAM TEAM.” Veryanto Sitohang, Head of the Sub Commission for Community Participation at Komnas Perempuan, emphasized.

(Translated by Marina Nasution)

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