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 two days by more protests and by riots by students, Islamic groups, looters and thugs, 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 English at a college some kilometres away and working afternoon/evening shifts. What follows is my personal experience in two of the hot spots of the time, based on notes I made on today’s date back then.

Jakarta 13 May ‘98

I had just finished lunch at Citraland Shopping Centre on Jl Parman in West Jakarta and headed off over the foot-bridge, intending 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 were a couple of hundred students who had drawn up in a phalanx confronting a thin line of a dozen cops 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 cops, while other student ‘officials’ 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 cops retreated 6 or 7 metres in a muddled way; none had walkie-talkies and no one was obviously directing them (few people had cell-phones then). This happened a few times until the student body, now several hundred strong, reached a point where the lanes from a major artery 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.

By this time, a crowd of wong cilik (ordinary or ‘little’ people) had gathered on the foot-bridge, shouting “Advance” and “Enter the toll road” once they learned the students wanted to march on Parliament, a couple of 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 to further down the bridge, in case warning shots were fired over the students’ heads.

In fact, 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 lanes from Daan Magot were blocked and a long line of buses and cars were stuck. An armoured personnel carrier with a water cannon on the roof moved up behind the police. Somehow, some students spilled out around the end of the fence where the lanes converged, pushing past Polisi. Some 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.

Two more personnel carriers arrived and police got out to form another double line about fifty metres behind the first lot. Military police appeared and pushed the ‘spillover’ students back over the divide, so they were then between two lines of police. Several hundred metres down the road (to the east, or city centre), three army personnel carriers drew up, plus some soldiers on motorbikes. The front line of the police was pushed back a bit, so that a student could climb on front of the police carrier and address the students through a megaphone. There was some chanting, and generally the atmosphere was still peaceful but boisterous on the students’ part, and restrained on the soldiers’ part.

It began raining lightly and students sat down on the road. Then a Military Policeman 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 changed. Later that evening, we heard that four students and two others had been shot dead. One of the deceased was a pal of an inmate at my boarding-house, who arrived home very upset.

The four students died within the grounds of Trisakti and others were injured. Later it was revealed that Polisi shot at students who had already retreated to campus. One of my students had watched from the 9th floor of a faculty building and later told me the trouble started when students threw rocks and bottles at the police. One newspaper said the students had become angry when they found an intelligence agent in their midst. As for the police, I thought they showed great constraint for many hours. If they’d had a stronger presence and acted more firmly, they may have contained the students without incident.

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 cancelled.


15 May

Still anxious 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. I cross the footbridge – no sign of students. Wait for in vain for a bus and 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 stay at his home for safety, as “the neighbourhood is dangerous.” I say I’ll be fine as my landlord is a retired colonel. He says that’s dangerous too. Incredulous, I decline his offer and have lunch 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 almost-deserted highway, I start to walk home and turn into Jl Tanjung Duren Utara, a suburban artery. Small groups of wong cilik seem surprised to see me but greet me cheerily. Ahead, near the local police station, I see a large group of people blocking the street as they trap some Polisi in their small station. Deciding to be cautious, I backtrack into a side street and go to a mate’s boarding-house to have a yarn till the streets cleared. 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, the traffic police office and two patrol vans burning. There are sounds of the mob approaching, so all guests go inside and the grill access door is locked.

Now I realize that the guests are nearly all Cina students and we are thus a possible target. Twice the mob surges past, once rattling the grill door, and I become genuinely frightened. The Cina retreat to their rooms, some armed with lengths of wood. I check the rear of the boarding-house for exits and find the back wall is two metres high and topped with glass. Escape that way would be with injury. In any case, things calm down and inmates watch cartoons in the lounge instead of non-stop news of burning buildings and riot.

Through the afternoon, parents come to take their offspring home. Once or twice I go to the front door but the young pribumi guards say ‘Tanung Duren is burning’ or ‘crowded’ (i.e. with mobs). They seem concerned for the inmates’ welfare. By 6 pm it seems quiet, I feel bored, it’s Muslim prayer time, so I think I’ll try walking home before it’s dark. Out on the streets it is very quiet, barricades removed, a big bunch of cops being briefed at the formerly besieged police station. I’m still scared and force my legs to move.

Turning into Jl Tanjung Duren, the street to my place, it is very quiet, with just a few pribumi around. A police patrol car cruises by. A burnt-out Kijang SUV lies on its side. All down the street, windows are smashed on Chinese shops and buildings, and on all banks except two regarded as ‘people’s banks’. No buildings are burnt out entirely and pribumi-owned Ramayana department store within the local markets has its lights on. The side street I live in was unscathed and I find my old landlord and his maid waiting anxiously for me. On my fiancee’s emphatic instruction, I stay indoors for two days and most local Chinese do likewise.

Normality has only returned this week (25 May). Slipi Jaya shopping centre, a favoured haunt of mine further along Jl. Parman, was 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 burning and smashing. Slogans on the side of the foot-bridge say “Kill Suharto quick” and “Suharto must be killed”. There are wreaths on the front fence of Trisakti and the slain students are now hailed as heroes of democracy and Reformasi.


It was an anxious time for several weeks, for no-one could be quite sure that the rioting was over or what Suharto, the government and/or the armed forces would do. For a few days, TV was full of scenes of burnt-out buildings and neighbourhoods, of wong cilik chasing police down the street, of gangs controlling the road to the airport and robbing carloads of people trying to flee, 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 (1000, 1200, 1500, 2000 – the last being popularly accepted), of rumours about ‘robust young men with military haircuts’ acting as agents provocateur, of finger-pointing and wild surmise.

Many department stores had been gutted of everything moveable. English schools closed and only reopened when their mainly Chinese 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.

My fiancee and I later married and moved to Australia. Having met a lady from Jakarta, I related my experience and said how, in my local convenience store, looters even stole the clocks of the wall. ‘At my place,’ 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.]