It is our responsibility as citizens of this country and as citizens of the world to react as powerfully as we can to prevent the violence from having its full course.

—Dr. Daniel Lev,
UW professor specializing in Southeast Asia

In the foreground of the photograph lay two charred corpses, the center of attention of crowd with sandal-shod feet. This graphic photograph was attached to an e-mail that invited local Indonesians to participate in a candlelit May 15 demonstration at Westlake Park headlined “Stop Violence in Indonesia,” part of a simultaneous nationwide candlelight vigil. The corpses were that of a 42-year-old woman and her daughter who were burned in the social unrest sweeping Indonesia.

Billed as a public awareness raising campaign, this event attracted some 40 participants who carried placards that read “1020 houses burned” and “4038 shops burned” and “468 women and children raped.” Others read: “Stop Religious Persecution,” and “Protect Human Rights.” Some posters showed beheaded victims of mob violence, burning buildings, and rampaging mobs roaming the streets. The demonstrators wore white facemasks for their anonymity.

Gesturing at one of the graphic signs, one demonstrator asked, “Where’s the police? This is like jungle rule.” Unwilling to finger either the government or the military for the May riots and the country’s continued descent into violence, one demonstrator said, “Basically, right now there’s no government. Where’s the government to protect the people, their own citizens?”

Asked how bad the situation was in Indonesia, one young male participant said:

I think it’s hard to define how bad. There’s no real statement or something like that. Chinese Indonesians have been discriminated [against] for a long time. In some places in Indonesia, there’s like people in Sumatra; they get discriminated [against] also. We want to expose what’s going on. We want to tell it happened before and if it happens again, if it’s going to happen, people can take action.

Zhang Ding-xuen, one of the organizers, said:

For the human rights violations, now it’s getting worse. They’re fighting over religion. We are not really pinpointing [if] religion is wrong or right. We demand the Indonesian government to capture the guys behind the May riots. We want to know the truth.

So what could the U.S. do? “I don’t know what the U.S. can do,” said one observer. “We’ve been trying so hard to talk to the politicians.” One current effort is to get a host family, church or organization to provide an affidavit of support letter for the surviving family members of Margaretha “Ita” Haryono. Haryono was murdered October 9,1998, a few days before she was to testify to a human rights organization in the U.S. Haryono’s sister and parents are currently in hiding, in fear for their lives, said Zhang. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) is also being petitioned to support the Haryono family.

Dr. Daniel Lev, U.W. professor specializing in S.E. Asia, said, “There’s a sense we memorialize a tragedy last May 14, and in a sense, this tragedy has gone on ever since.” He cited the deaths of 1,200 people in May 1998 “dying horribly” in this archipelago which used to be a Dutch colony. With the Dutch strategy of keeping the Chinese a racial minority to manage the commercial aspects of Indonesian life (but stay out of politics), a residual separation of the 3-4 percent Chinese Indonesian minority has occurred. “From 1965—1998, “not a single ethnic Chinese served in the parliament of the government. Ethnic Chinese were in fact told all they could do was caucus,” said Lev. Growing more and more resented, the ethnic Chinese Indonesians were then scapegoated by the Indonesian government when it was threatened, asserted Lev.
After years of relying on a government supported by the Indonesian army, Lev said, “they rely on the skill that armies have, and that is to have war.”
On May 14, 1988, unrest in the populace and mass dissatisfaction with the Suharto regime led to burnings of buildings, killings and rapes of many women. “It was a terrible, brutal time,” said Lev. “since that time, the violence has spread, largely manipulated by the army.” Professor Lev suggests that the army fueled the ethnic and racial conflicts that would “absorb people’s energies instead of at the government.”

Just two weeks before the worldwide candlelight vigil, the Indonesian army fired on unarmed people protesting in the northern part of Sumatra, and the dead were “running away” from the soldiers at the time, said Lev. With elections planned for June 7, Lev expects continued violence. Indonesia has been combatting nationwide economic chaos and rampant inflation for the past year and a half, with an accompanying breakdown in social order with the resignation of strongman Suharto, who had ruled the country for 32 years.

If any good is to come from the current strife, Lev hopes that reform of the political system will result in more equitable access to power through the hard and “discouraging work to rebuild a state.” He said Indonesian should strive to incorporate the Chinese as full citizens of the Indonesian state. “It is our responsibility as citizens of this country and as citizens of the world to react as powerfully as we can to prevent the violence from having its full course,” said Lev.

Other speakers included a young woman whose house was ransacked several times by roving mobs because of the family’s ethnic Chinese background in May 1998. Their gate was ripped open, stones and empty bottles thrown at the house, their car burned, their wealth looted, and their physical well-being threaten during the rampage. Gasoline was also thrown on their garage with some of the attackers intending to burn down the house.

The vigil ended in prayer, with a reverend praying over the crowd. He prayed that the “involvement of God will cure and heal the Indonesian people.”

Fear and a sense of secrecy pervaded this demonstration. A few days after, a rumor of “massacre plan” was routed among Indonesians abroad and in-country which warns that a June 4-10 attack was planned on Chinese Indonesian male businesspersons and professionals. Compensation of 500,000 to 1.5 million rupiah was allegedly promised to those who would carry out the attacks.

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