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.
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 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.
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.
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.
However, later that evening we heard that things had gone haywire and 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 had showed great constraint for many hours, whatever wrongs they did later.
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. Worse was to come.
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.
Deciding to be cautious, I backtrack into another side street and go to a mate’s boarding-house until the streets are clear. 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 students, 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 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.
Once or twice I go to the front door, but the young pribumi doormen say the neighbour-hood 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 think I’ll 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.
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.
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.’