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Indonesian activist lifts lid on rape of Chinese women in May 1998 riots: 'it was a new low'

South China Morning Post - May 26, 2023

Johannes Nugroho – Indonesian author and leading feminist Julia Suryakusuma was in Jakarta when the May 1998 riots erupted and the capital city descended into chaos, as mobs attacked and looted businesses that had Indonesian-Chinese owners.

After 32 years of rule by military dictator Suharto, Indonesians violently rose up to protest against food shortages, mass unemployment, corruption and the economic crisis, and the minority Chinese community – long targeted by discriminatory policies and blamed for stealing jobs – came under attack.

"Given the economic crisis, the looting was perhaps understandable, but the fact hundreds of Chinese women were raped was a new low for us," said Suryakusuma.

As Indonesia marks the 25th anniversary of the May 1998 riots, which led to the fall of Suharto, much of the dark chapter around the assault of Indonesian-Chinese women remains unspoken.

Ita Fatia Nadia, from the Volunteers for Victims of Sexual Violence Against Women, said there were 152 instances of sexual violence that year against Indonesian-Chinese women in Jakarta and its surrounding regions, between May 12 and June 2.

But the actual number could be much higher nationally, since rioting also broke out in other major cities across Indonesia, Suryakusuma said.

"Not all the victims chose to come forward. The shame, humiliation and total loss of self-worth and dignity very often cause rape victims to bury the recollections of horror and trauma."

Suryakusuma was one of some 100 female activists from the Women's Coalition for Justice and Democracy who protested outside the Ministry of Defence on July 17, 1998.

"We marched from Jakarta's National Monument to the ministry building holding placards, handing out pamphlets to passers-by and demanded to see the minister," she said.

The protesters were denied their request for an audience with General Wiranto, the Minister of Defence and Commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces at that time, but they were allowed to submit a petition seeking to hold the military accountable for its role in the May riots.

"First-hand accounts pointed to military agent provocateurs being present in the field to incite mobs to riot and attack Chinese-owned shops," Suryakusuma said.

"The rioters were mostly angry with Suharto and the Indonesian-Chinese tycoons who served his regime, but were too well-protected and therefore untouchable," she said.

Instead, mobs incited by military agents vented their frustrations on "easy targets" like ordinary middle-class Indonesian-Chinese and their women relatives.

"Chinese women were targeted because they were unable to defend themselves, much less retaliate, especially if they were killed afterwards. Seven out of eight women who were raped in the riots were subsequently murdered," she added.

But the tragedy also became a catalyst for change, Suryakusuma said. The horrors perpetrated against Indonesian-Chinese women in 1998 unified and galvanised women's rights groups that had been polarised along "secular" and "Muslim" lines.

In the same year after the riots, Indonesia also established the National Commission on Violence against Women (KOMNAS Perempuan) to work with and advise the government on combatting gender-based violence.

Earlier this year, President Joko Widodo formally "acknowledged" the May 1998 riots, along with 11 other incidents, to be a "gross violation of human rights" for which he also expressed "regret".

Suryakusuma said she hoped Widodo's statement would lead to more concrete steps towards reconciliation. "But this can't take place without exposing the true extent of the military's involvement during the May riots; who were the mastermind and who carried out the order."

Widodo's gesture also fell short of satisfying civil society groups, with Amnesty International Indonesia's executive director Usman Hamid saying that it had to go beyond mere lip service.

"Naming several tragic events publicly is far from enough. The president did not even talk about the sexual violence that occurred systematically in the May 1998 riots," he said.

Feminism a 'dirty word'

Suryakusuma says the government's inability to verbalise the sexual violence inherent in the May 1998 riots is a potent reminder that women's rights have a long way to go in Indonesia.

"Back in the 1980s, I was the first woman to openly identify as a feminist. Many people were allergic to the term," said the author of books including Julia's Jihad, State Ibuism and Sex, Power and Nation.

Suryakusuma said feminism in the country today faces considerable challenges, as Indonesians increasingly move towards religious conservatism.

A 2020 Pew study of more than 38,000 respondents in 34 countries found that 98 per cent of Indonesians saw God and prayer as important parts of their lives, putting Southeast Asia's largest nation among the world's most religious.

"Feminism has, to a certain degree, become a dirty word. Sometimes labelling ourselves as feminists can lead to a backlash, though it's too late for me to change mine," Suryakusuma said.

In a 2021 poll of 1,500 men and women respondents conducted by local media Tirto, 51 per cent of female interviewees considered themselves feminists but had never taken part in activism. Another 35 per cent wanted to distance themselves from the term.

Despite the lukewarm response towards feminism, progress on women's rights continues to be made in Indonesia, Suryakusuma said.

"Muslim feminists, such as those from the Indonesian Congress of Women Ulema, are now on the frontline of our struggle," she said, adding she had been impressed by the way they can act as a bridge between Islam and women's rights issues.

Asked whether she is hopeful about the future of feminism in Indonesia, she said: "I will be 69 this year and I keep telling people I want to live to be 100. I wouldn't do that if I was pessimistic about what's coming."

[Johannes Nugroho is a writer and political analyst from Surabaya, Indonesia.]

Source: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/people/article/3221871/indonesian-activist-lifts-lid-rape-chinese-women-may-1998-riots-it-was-new-lo