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.
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.
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.”