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Blood on their hands

Sydney Morning Herald - November 21, 1998

After being trapped in a culture of violence for decades, the people of Indonesia have exploded, with devastating consequences, reports Louise Williams in Jakarta.

The history student had already been beaten to the floor in the lobby of a Jakarta bank, where the protesters and bystanders had tried to seek shelter from the barrage of tear gas and rubber bullets outside.

He raised his hands instinctively over his head to deflect the blows of the riot troops and willed himself to fight against the pain.

When he looked up, he saw one of the soldiers was aiming his gun, then he felt the tearing pain of a rubber bullet deliberately shot into his chest at close range. "I was still conscious, but I felt like I couldn't breathe. It was chaos and no-one else had the courage to help me," Ferkin Susanto says of the brutal assault on Friday night last week on tens of thousands of student protesters by the Indonesian police and military, which left at least 14 people dead and 448 injured.

"I tried to get up, but the soldiers kicked me again and I knew I had to run, even if I couldn't breathe, so I ran into the street behind just shouting out: 'Help me, help me.'

"There were so many people running, and they were really scared, but when I collapsed they picked me up and carried me. They asked me if I was a Muslim and started to pray over my body," he says, his eyes smarting with tears.

Susanto, a 23-year-old student of letters from the prestigious University of Indonesia, slowly lowers himself from his hospital bed. "Can I show you?" he asks, bringing his T-shirt out from the cupboard beside his bed. It has a large hole where the bullet entered his chest and the blood is dried and crusting. Clutching his shirt, he crouches down on the floor, his hands above his head, cowering. "I was already on the ground, like this, when they shot me."

The preliminary findings of an investigation by the Indonesian Human Rights Commission into the two-hour battle outside the Atma Jaya Catholic University indicates the use of some live bullets against civilian protesters, in breach of military regulations, and the use of excessive force, including the deliberate shooting of unarmed students with rubber bullets, which can kill at close range. The bank building where Susanto was shot was hundreds of metres from the protest site, behind a fence and parking area. But security forces went beyond clearing the crowd and deliberately pursued protesters and bystanders. One witness said 39 people were shot in the lobby.

A staff member of a human rights organisation was deliberately shot at close range after showing troops his ID card; the parents of a student who was shot in the head are still to decide whether doctors should turn off the life-support system; two young women were severely beaten by riot troops who shouted: "Students are dogs, students are bastards"; a 14-year-old boy who joined in the stone-throwing against military lines was shot with live ammunition.

The commission is also studying equally horrifying evidence of excessive violence on the part of civilian mobs, who beat to death several members of the paramilitary forces, hired by the military and trucked into Jakarta from poor rural villages to fight the protesters during the recent "special session" of the People's Consultative Assembly.

The lynchings began when the mobs chased one of the men into a vacant lot off the toll road. They stoned the cornered victim, then teenagers picked up heavy pieces of wood, which they used to pound his chest once he had fallen to the ground.

An eyewitness says a father brought his children over to watch and a grandmother cheered as the mob took turns with rocks and planks until someone struck the fatal blow. Then the mob dragged his body onto the toll road and called for petrol to set the corpse on fire. But there was no petrol, so they stuck sticks in his eyes and mouth. Soldiers made no attempt to stop the mob.

Four members of the pro-Government paramilitary squads were lynched by rioters in broad daylight in Jakarta between November 12 and 14. These lynchings followed scores of similar mob murders in Java over the past two months. A source at the Human Rights Commission says two of the victims were decapitated. At least one police officer was killed and several more were seriously injured by crowds angered over decades of heavy-handed security operations in Indonesia. Predictably, the Habibie Government has ordered yet another investigation.

However, the bigger picture is not just about the growing list of bloody political confrontations but about the brutalisation of society and the inability of Indonesia's political elite to reach compromises that can prevent further bloodshed.

"The people of Indonesia have been trapped in a culture of violence for decades. Nearly all problems in society are solved using violence," says Munir, the head of the Commission for the Disappeared and the Victims of Violence. "The violence begins with the armed forces, but then there were lynchings in Jakarta because the people were very, very angry about the violence against students and the hiring of these thugs [vigilantes].

"So now it is not just the students, it is the ordinary people clashing with the Government. This wouldn't happen if there was a pattern to accommodate the people's needs." The Deputy Human Rights Commissioner, Marzuki Darusman says: "There is a heightened level of violence. This is a process of accumulated frustration that has made the public more prone to taking the law into their own hands. There are many issues the public feel very strongly about, and they aren't seeing any progress."

The fall of former President Soeharto six months ago unleashed a wave of anger over serious human rights abuses during his 32 years in power and raised expectations for a new, accountable system that could deliver justice to ordinary people. It also opened up a political power struggle over the pace of democratic reform and who could control it.

The rise of Soeharto in the mid-1960s was marked by one of the worst massacres of modern history. About 500,000 Communist Party (PKI) members and suspected sympathisers were massacred, many by their own neighbours, in a military-backed communist purge.

Human rights investigations which opened in the reformist spirit of the post-Soeharto era uncovered grisly mass graves in the province of Aceh, evidence of military snipers being used against student demonstrators and the disappearances and torture of pro-democracy activists. Perhaps most seriously, a Government-sponsored fact-finding team recently concluded that members of the armed forces were involved in provoking May's devastating riots and failing to protect civilians in the three days of unrest that cost more than 1,200 lives.

It was a humiliating fall from grace for a "people's army", once feted for its role in liberating Indonesia from Dutch colonial rule and accustomed to enjoying political and economic power under Soeharto. Soeharto's son-in-law and former special forces commander, Prabowo Subianto, was discharged, but has not been court-martialled over the disappearances of pro-democracy activitists.

It is not surprising that there is little faith left in an investigation into the Atma Jaya killings and injuries. The killings of students at Trisakti University six months ago, which sparked the protests and riots that forced Soeharto to step down, have not yet been resolved. No Government minister even showed up to accept the riots report.

The people of Aceh have received an apology, but the military commander in charge at the time of the worst atrocities still occupies a senior position in Habibie's Cabinet. A public relations stunt was organised to convince the rest of the world that combat troops were being withdrawn from East Timor, but more were secretly brought in to replace them.

Much has been said about the accountability of Soeharto and an investigation into his wealth, but no member of his family has been brought to trial.

What angered the students most was a decision by the People's Consultative Assembly to allow the military to retain its appointed seats in Parliament, a breach of the democratic principles set out in the Constitution left over from the Soeharto era. The pragmatic rationale, according to Indonesia's political elite, is that power cannot just be abruptly snatched away from the powerful armed forces or the country will be exposed to the risk of a coup d'itat.

This week President Habibie threw in his lot with the military, ordering a crackdown which included a round-up of opposition figures for questioning on suspicion of inciting rebellion. He warned of national disintegration if the protests continued and the nation refused to follow the Government's reform timetable.

This week the students kept up the pressure, draping the campuses with slogans: "We have no guns, but if we are faced by bullet we are not scared." But, said 20-year-old Novianti, from her hospital bed: "I was so afraid, I panicked, I fell off my motorbike and the suddenly all the military grabbed and beat us."

Her skull was fractured and her fingers broken in the first serious clash of last week, as she was leaving the protest. Tuti, in the bed beside her, had her head split open, her face beaten and her hands smashed in the same attack, which pitted at least 20 riot troops in full battle dress, against two slightly built girls. Both their mothers are by their side. "If they want to go back and protest, I won't stop them. This is the students' time now," said Tuti's mother.

[In a separate report on the same day, the Herald said a total of 14 were killed and 448 wounded in the clashes. Mr Asmara Nababan, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, told the Herald: "The provisional findings suggest that there was the use of live bullets and excessive violence. We are still investigating what triggered this use of excessive violence and who gave the command. "But, whether or not the chain of command was operating, the Government should be held accountable." - James Balowski.]