Jakarta riots, May 1998

In the middle of May 1998, major riots broke out in Jakarta and – to a lesser extent – some other Indonesian cities. They began with a peaceful student demo that ended in deaths, followed over the next several days by protests, riots and mayhem by various groupings, each with their own agenda. The week-long breakdown of law and order resulted in President Suharto stepping down and the path to democracy beginning.

I was living in West Jakarta at the time, teaching afternoon/evening shifts at an English college. What follows is my personal experience in three of the hot spots.

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Flash-forward to what was to happen: local security guards try to stop protestors advancing. Citraland to the left, Trisakti University to the right and a glimpse of footbridge back centre. (Photo: AAP/Tatan Suflana)

13 May:

I had just finished lunch at Citraland Shopping Centre on Jl Parman, a major motorway in West Jakarta, and headed over the foot-bridge to catch a bus to the Australian Embassy to obtain papers for my fiancee’s visa. Across the multi-lane highway I could see a group of students in front of Trisakti University, cheering and chanting. The far side of the footbridge was filled with people peering down at them, blocking my egress. I found a vantage spot for myself to watch what might happen.

A short distance down the highway, a couple of hundred students had drawn up in a phalanx confronting a thin line of a dozen Polisi (at that time, a branch of the armed forces) in white helmets carrying round rattan shields, some with red flowers in them, and ordinary nightsticks. Student leaders were containing the front line about five metres in front of the Polisi, while other student leaders pushed back students who jumped the fence onto the road, and a few traffic cops and soldiers waved the traffic through. The atmosphere was carnival-like.

Other students were slowly pouring out from campus, while those at the front set up a chant and surged forward. The Polisi retreated about six metres in a muddled way. This happened a few times until the student body, now several hundred strong, reached a point where exit lanes from Daan Magot, a major highway intersecting Jl. Parman, merge with the straight-through traffic. Nearly all the protesting students were on the street now, while traffic cops, soldiers and student leaders waved traffic through on the far lane. The student body had come to a halt at a double line of ordinary police with truncheons.

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View to the east. The footbridge, before I arrived. Trisakti is to the left, Citraland to the right, both out of sight. (Photo: Jakarta Post)

By this time, a crowd of wong cilik (ordinary or ‘little’ people) had filled on the footbridge, shouting ‘Advance’ and ‘Enter the toll road’ once they learned the students wanted to march on Parliament, several kilometres away. About twenty anti-riot personnel appeared from nowhere in jungle-green gear including flak vests, neck guards, full-length shields, long black batons and rifles slung across their backs. I moved from directly over the students back towards Citraland, in case warning shots were fired over the students’ heads.

The ‘flak-jacks’ simply took a position at one side of the student body to deter them from jumping the fence into the main lanes from the airport. By this time, the feed-in lanes from Daan Magot were blocked and a long line of buses and cars were stuck. An armoured personnel carrier (APC) with some kind of cannon on the roof moved up behind the police. Some students spilled out around the end of the fence where the lanes converged, pushing past Polisi. Traffic cops and student leaders made ineffectual attempts to herd them back, until only one lane remained open and traffic bottle-necked back up the lanes from the airport.

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The riot squad, when things turned nasty later on.

Two more APCs arrived and police got out to form another double line about fifty metres behind the first lot.  Several hundred metres down the road three APCs drew up, plus some Brimob (Mobile Brigade cops) on motorbikes. The front line of the Polisi was pushed back a bit, and a student climbed on the hood of an APC to address the crowd through a megaphone. There was some chanting; generally the atmosphere was still peaceful but boisterous on the students’ part and restrained on the Polisi/soldiers’ part.

It began raining lightly and students sat down on the road. Then an MP cleared the bridge of onlookers and I went to California Chicken upstairs in Citraland, with a window overlooking the street, so I could eat and watch. Many journalists had appeared, mainly occupying the DMZ between the soldiers and students. When I left to go to work at 3.15 pm, nothing had really changed.

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The scene heats up in late afternoon. (Photo: asean.blogspot.com)

However, later that afternoon we heard that things had gone haywire: four students had been shot dead within the grounds of Trisakti and others were injured. One of my students, who had watched from the 9th floor of a faculty building, later told me the trouble started when retreating students threw rocks and bottles at Polisi. As for the Polisi, I thought they showed great constraint for many hours, whatever wrongs some did later.

14 May

The day began normally but with a touch of tension. Class attendances at my college were nearly back up to strength. However, mid-afternoon a mother came to take her boy from my class, babbling incoherently about fires. We teachers went up on the roof and could see smoke billowing from Grogol district (where my fiancée lived) and from a government building closer to town. Word was that a petrol station had been torched and more trouble was afoot. Classes were promptly cancelled. Worse was to come.

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Jakarta burning (Photo: al-terity.blogspot.com)

15 May

Still keen to get to the embassy, I again go to the bus-stop outside Trisakti. Riot troops are resting on the lawn in front of Citraland, which is closed. No sign of protestors. I cross the footbridge and wait for in vain for a bus. My pager buzzes: a message from my fiancee says ‘Danger. Go home.’ I need to get money and food, so I walk to Taman Anggrek shopping centre about a kilometer down the highway, but the shops inside are shutting down. The centre’s head of security notices me and invites me to go home in his security van for safety, as ‘the neighbourhood is dangerous.’ Incredulous, I decline his offer and eat at a food-stall in the street, whence I see smoke billowing high in the sky from several places.

As there is now no transport to be seen on the highway, I start to walk home and turn into a suburban artery. Small groups of wong cilik seem surprised to see me but greet me cheerily. Heading down a side street, I see a mob blocking the way as they trap some Polisi in their small police station.

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The ‘suburban artery’ in quieter times. (Photo: infocarfreeday.net)

Deciding to be cautious, I backtrack into another side street and go to take shelter in a mate’s boarding-house. Out front were Cina (ethnic Chinese) and pribumi (indigenes), who advise me not to proceed home. We can see smoke billowing from behind Mercuri Hotel – in fact, from a traffic police office and two burning patrol vans. There are sounds of the mob approaching, so all guests go inside and the grill access door is locked.

As the boarding-house inmates are nearly all Cina university students, we are thus a possible target. Twice the mob surges past, once rattling the grill door, and I become genuinely frightened. The students retreat to their rooms, some armed with lengths of wood. I check the rear of the boarding-house and find the back wall is two metres high and topped with glass, so no escape that way if the mob breaks in the front. In any case, things gradually calm down and inmates watch cartoons in the lounge instead of non-stop news of riot and burning buildings.

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Looting & burning (Photo source unknown)

Once or twice I go to the front door, but the young pribumi doormen say the neighbourhood is burning or crowded with mobs. They seem genuinely concerned for me and the inmates. By 6 pm it seems peaceful, I’m bored and it’s Muslim prayer time, so I take a chance walking home before it’s really dark. Ouside it is very quiet, with a big bunch of Polisi being briefed at the formerly besieged police station. I’m still scared and force my legs to move.

Turning into the main street to my place it is very quiet, with just a few pribumi around. A police patrol car cruises by. A burnt-out SUV lies on its side. All down the street, windows are smashed on Chinese shops and other businesses and some have been torched, but none are burned down entirely. The small pribumi-owned department store is untouched. The side street I live in is also unscathed and I find my aged landlord and his maid waiting anxiously for me.

May 16 onwards

On my fiancee’s emphatic instruction, I stay indoors for two days and most local Chinese do likewise. Slipi Jaya shopping centre, a favoured haunt of mine further along Parman highway, is totally razed: 64 burnt to death, mainly looters and shop assistants. Burnt buses and cars sit on the lot opposite Citraland. ‘100% native-owned’ is painted on some buildings in case of a resurgence of destruction. Slogans daubed on the side of the footbridge say ‘Kill Suharto quick’. There are wreaths on the front fence of Trisakti and the slain students are hailed as martyrs of democracy and reformasi.

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Burnt buildings, probably in the Glodok district (Photo source unknown)

For a few days, TV was full of scenes of burnt-out buildings and ransacked houses, of wong cilik chasing police down the street, of gangs controlling the road to the airport, of tales of people getting home to find their husband/wife/children killed by fire or murdered, of stories of pack rapes (denied by officials), of the death-toll (1500 being popularly accepted), of rumours about ‘robust young men with military haircuts’ acting as provocateurs, of finger-pointing and wild surmise.

It was an anxious time, for no-one could be quite sure the rioting was over. Many stores had been gutted of everything moveable. English-language schools closed and only reopened when their clientele dared to venture out again. Under pressure from senior officials and generals, Suharto stepped down – shocked, confused, but seemingly shameless. A new normalcy slowly asserted itself, but things were never quite the same again.

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President Suharto resigns (Photo: Getty images)


Eventually, two Polisi were made the fall-boys for the murders, but no-one was held accountable for how the armed forces handled the situation overall and there is still no consensus on who may have been behind the seemingly-coodinated mayhem.

Within a year, my fiancee and I married and moved to Australia. Having met a Chinese woman from Jakarta, I related my experience and said how, in my local convenience store, looters even stole the clocks of the wall. ‘At my house,’ she responded quietly, ‘they even took the doorknobs off our doors.’


The Indonesian Attorney General’s Office and Indonesian military (TNI) are planning a large-scale raid on books about communism and the 1965 purge, supposedly aimed at preventing revival of the Indonesian Communist Party (Jakarta Post, 26 Jan 2019). The raid would follow up similar raids last year in East Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan. The PKI is long dead but the RI government still touts it as a ‘latent danger’.

The Indonesian establishment’s fear of communism is perhaps genuine; nonetheless, it follows in the footsteps of former strong-man President Suharto in using the communist bogeyman as justification for repression of free speech and discomforting facts. Many in the TNI and other positions of power have self-serving reasons for suppressing the truth about the 1960s purge of suspected communists, which resulted in a million or more deaths across the country.

This is yet another disturbing anti free-speech move by the powers-that-be in recent times, running against what many had hoped would be a current of liberalization after Jokowi was elected President. But no – it seems the RI establishment is not yet ready to allow open inspection of the nation’s living past.

Here are some links may be of interest:


End of Silence: the 1965 Genocide in Indonesia


Blood in the East Indies

November 1st marks the day when, in 1945 after the cessation of the Pacific War, British warships carrying 1,500 troops arrived in Surabaya, the regional capital of East Java in the East Indies, to reinforce troops already there.

It was bad news for the resistance forces of the newly-declared Republic of Indonesia, who had begun fighting for their nation’s independence from Dutch colonial rule. The Japanese had occupied the Indies during the war but had formally surrendered just a week previously.

British ships arrived two days later, disgorging 3,000 troops under Brigadier Mallaby, who reached an uneasy truce with the Republican commander. Things went wrong and hostilities broke out. More troops arrived on November 1st as mentioned and three days later, a further 9,000 troops disembarked, setting the stage for a battle ten days later.

There were over 100,000 Indonesian combatants present but, by the end of it all, British dead numbered about six hundred while Indonesian deaths were more than ten times that number. The whole business was a tragedy, but the battle was seen by the nationalists as a sign of Indonesian grit and a symbol of the freedom struggle, and is commemorated even today.

You can read more about this battle at https://mikecoppin.wordpress.com/2012/10/25/east-java-anniversary/ and https://mikecoppin.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/563/


Jokowi’s anti-communist pledge

When Joko Widodo – known as Jokowi – was elected president of Indonesia as someone apparently outside the existing national political power structures, many people felt hopeful. Was he the new broom needed to sweep through Jakarta?

Since then, observers have felt a sinking feeling of disappointment. Jokowi seemed to have his heart in the right place but has lacked the strength to stand up to the powerful (if shifting) alliances and pressure groups that comprise Indonesian politics, such as Islamic hardliners.

Now it is reported (Jakarta Post, 6 Oct 2018) that he has exhorted the Indonesian Military (TNI) to fight against communism. At a commemoration of the founding of the TNI, Jokowi saw fit to pledge that, as Commander in Chief, he joined hands with the military in “eradicating communism and the legacy of the PKI”.

The PKI was blamed for a coup attempt in 1965 and was disbanded the following year, during a massive counter-communist purge that saw the execution of up to a million Indonesians accused of being left-wing. The new leader, Soeharto, and his allies ran an ongoing anti-communist campaign right down to his overthrow in 1998; foremost among those allies was the TNI. Since then, the witch-hunt has been off the boil, though anti-PKI paranoia has become ingrained into the Indonesian psyche.

Accused leftists being led to slaughter

When Jokowi ran for presidency four years ago, rumors were circulated that he was a PKI member, even though he’d been a mere toddler in the Sixties. Such rumours have resurfaced and a week ago Jokowi, a successful self-made businessman, felt it necessary to publicly dismiss them again, saying that fake news was being spread because of the upcoming presidential elections (Jakarta Post, 27 Sept 2018).

Clearly, the communist bogey-man is still being used by certain groups to put down anyone they see as a threat. The TNI has always loved to use it, partly through genuine belief and partly because they see a ‘red threat’ as justification for their repressive role in the national polity.

The author Soe Tjen Marching (The End of Silence, 2017) has argued that the powerful in Indonesia – including purge perpetrators and their cronies – have a vested interest in sustaining fear of the bogey-man, since it serves to thwart investigation of what really happened in 1965 and who was involved in the purge.

Wittingly or otherwise, Jokowi has become part of this repression.

For more on The End of Silence, see https://mikecoppin.wordpress.com/2017/08/06/end-of-silence-the-1965-genocide-in-indonesia/

For more on Soeharto’s part in the purge, see: http://indonesiaatmelbourne.unimelb.edu.au/theres-now-clear-proof-that-soeharto-orchestrated-the-1965-killings/



Asia Pacific Youth Exchange 2019

Applications are now open for the 7th Asia Pacific Youth Exchange. The program will run 8 – 19 January 2019. According to the organisers, participants will:

“EXPERIENCE the Filipino culture
GROW in an engaging learning environment
EMPOWER and be empowered”

and take an active role in the achievement of sustainable development goals.

Kartini Day: Indonesia’s proto-feminist heroine

Raden Ajeng Kartini was cloistered in an aristocratic family, but managed to befriend some progressive Dutch and Indonesian individuals who stimulated her thinking. She was determined to improve the lot of Indies women, even though her father made her the fourth wife of an older man. She poured her heart and hopes into letters to liberal-minded friends but died following childbirth at 25.

A collection of her letters was published posthumously, in English called “Through Darkness to Light” and later “Letters of a Javanese Princess”. These spread her ideas and are still republished today. For more, see: http://www.shadow-chase.com/women-of-the-indies.html

Indonesia: freedom of speech?

There were two pieces of disturbing news from Indonesia last week regarding freedom of speech.

The South Jakarta District Court found political activist Asma Dewi guilty of ‘insulting those in power or legal institutions’, in violation of Article 207 of the Criminal Code. In a Facebook post, she had used slang words meaning stupid and crazy when criticizing the government. The court said Asma’s comments were ‘not constructive’, as the words ‘could be construed as insulting’.

Asma was sentenced to over five month’s jail but she’ll probably walk free, as her detention since her arrest last September was taken into account. The prosecution had requested two years’ jail and an extremely hefty fine.

Indonesians have never enjoyed freedom of expression as it is understood in liberal democracies but, since an era of reformasi was heralded after the demise of quasi-dictator Suharto two decades ago, there have been gradual advancements on that front. More recently, however, it seems Indonesian politicians are becoming more thin-skinned.

Witness to this trend is last weeks’ new Legislative Institutions Law, empowering the House of Representatives’ ethics council to press charges against anyone ‘disrespecting’ the House or its members. The law shields members themselves from investigation by law enforcement authorities without the approval of the president and the council.

Civil rights groups are worried the law could be used to silence critics (who would have guessed?) but parliamentarians claim they distinguish legitimate criticism from insults. To his credit, President Joko Widodo refused to sign the law but that doesn’t stop it coming into effect. He suggested the public should challenge the law in the Constitutional Court.

Let’s hope some brave souls are prepared to try.

[Sources: Articles in The Jakarta Post, 15 March 2018.]

Indonesian Heroes Day – the eve of Armistice

We all know 11 November is Armistice Day, when we remember those fallen in battle, especially in major wars that everyone knows about. But few people other than Indonesians are familiar with the Battle of Surabaya, celebrated on 10 November as Heroes Day in Indonesia.

This is despite the fact that one the main protagonists, apart from Indonesian nationalists, were the British armed forces (including many Indians), with numbers of Dutch personnel. It was a battle for independence for Indonesians and for reassertion of colonial power by the Dutch, with the Brits caught in between.

British armor in Surabaya

During the battle, there were propaganda broadcasts by ‘Surabaya Sue’, a Scots woman whose life included many moves, name changes, adventures and delusions (for more, see http://www.shadow-chase.com/women-of-the-indies.html). If she is to be believed, at least two Australians present crossed over to the Republican side, as did significant numbers of Indians.

BersiapinSurabayaTo see how the battle worked out, click  DUTCH EAST INDIES October 1945: the Battle of Surabaya part 1 and DUTCH EAST INDIES November 1945: the Battle of Surabaya part 2.

Happy Heroes Day to Indonesia, and respectful remembrance to all Commonwealth forces who did their duty.

End of Silence: the 1965 Genocide in Indonesia

During the rule of Indonesia’s inaugural president, Sukarno, a group of generals were plotting to remove him for being too left-wing. One morning in 1965, the bodies of five of these generals were found in a well and members of the Presidential Guard took over part of the capital, Jakarta. The head of special forces, Major-General Soeharto, promptly subdued the Guards, assumed control and effectively put Sukarno under house arrest.


Soeharto quickly promulgated a story that communists were responsible for the killings and unleashed a murderous witch-hunt: the final death toll was around the million mark. Many victims were not communist, merely members of student or worker organisations, or not activist at all. Any discussion of the initial murders and subsequent purge was actively suppressed and this applies today, despite the ousting of Soeharto in 1998.

The End of Silence: Accounts of the 1965 Genocide in Indonesia, by Soe Tjen Marching (Amsterdam University Press, 2017), presents first-hand accounts of victims and family members who suffered from the witch-hunt. [See https://www.amazon.com/End-Silence-Accounts-Genocide-Indonesia/dp/9462983909/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1502021215&sr=8-1&keywords=end+of+silence+%2B+soe+tjen+marching%5D

For her, the purge is very personal: “My mother’s trauma of witnessing her husband being dragged from our home by Soeharto’s troops… makes her believe that silence is a virtue. I am almost the complete opposite… I believe that I have the responsibility to reveal these stories so that more and more people find out about what happened…”

marching Marching wanted to reveal how the purge was perceived by surviving victims and their families, and how they have been affected since. Her book achieves that aim excellently, comprising an analysis of Soeharto’s campaign and its legacy, followed by chapters devoted to the stories of direct victims, their siblings, their children and grandchildren respectively, and a reflective epilogue.

The accounts she presents make gripping and sometimes harrowing reading. While often amazed at how resilient people could be, I was sobered by stories of brutality, families broken up, careers ruined, inner pain, and secrets kept fearfully for half a century. The difficulties of direct victims and their families did not end with release. Identity cards were stamped to show victims’ past status, employment became near-impossible to secure, and they were subject abuse and even violence, with lasting negative consequences.

Marching explains how Soeharto and his allies implanted widespread fear in Indonesian society so his troops’ actions could gain public approval and support. Soeharto’s anti-communist campaign permeated Indonesian life right down to his demise in 1998 and beyond, with the official line on the purge being replicated in school texts and propaganda films.

The author argues that the powerful in Indonesia (which still includes perpetrators and their cronies), by sustaining fear, have turned the victims and families into their agents in maintaining the silence, while themselves remaining demonised and stigmatised.

Marching hopes this collection of victims’ accounts will help prevent the destruction of memories of 1965-1966. Her closing words reflect exactly my own estimation of her work: “This book has given the space for the survivors and their families to challenge the chronic stigma maintained by the perpetrators and their cronies: it is time to end the silence.”

Postscript: Another book on the subject is Unmarked Graves by Vanessa Hearman. See this link for details: https://nuspress.nus.edu.sg/products/unmarked-graves-death-and-survival-in-the-anti-communist-violence-in-east-java-indonesia

Indonesian Independence Day

On 17 August 1945, just two days after Japan had admitted defeat in World War Two, Indonesia proclaimed its independence from Dutch colonial rule. The man doing the proclaiming was the new nation’s first leader, President Sukarno. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRU93–5aOg


It wasn’t smooth sailing. The Netherlands did not accept the proclamation but was unready to reinstall government there immediately, so – ironically – the Japanese were left with the task of keeping the peace until Allied command for Southeast Asia (SEAC) could sent troops in. Indonesian nationalists didn’t fancy any of the above and hostilities broke out. In some cases, sympathetic Japanese commanders allowed arms and munitions to fall into the hands of the nationalists.

Then SEAC sent in its troops, mainly Indian sepoys with British brass. Hell broke loose. You can read about it at these links: DUTCH EAST INDIES October 1945: the Battle of Surabaya part 1 and DUTCH EAST INDIES November 1945: the Battle of Surabaya part 2.

After five years of struggle, Indonesia was finally recognised as an independedent nation. Happy Birthday, Indonesia!