It has been 11 years since the mayhem and tragedy of the May 1998 rioting in Jakarta. Following the killing of students by security forces in the capital, the city erupted into a spasm of violence that led to the destruction of whole neighborhoods targeted in a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment. Untold numbers of women were reportedly raped and the rioting sent the country’s reputation into a tailspin.
At the time, and since, much of the violence was blamed on the military. But though the unrest led to the end of President Suharto’s rule and the beginning of the reform era, the victims of 1998 have still not seen the masterminds of the violence brought to justice. There has yet to be a full accounting for some of the worst violence in Indonesian history.
The mother of Eten Karyana, a University of Indonesia student killed in the fire that destroyed the Yogya department store in May 1998, said on Monday that she has lived with uncertainty and sadness ever since. She blames the men then at the head of Kopassus and the military for the incidents, and laments the fact that they have never been investigated or tried.
“We will never forget this tragedy,” she said. “We have not seen any justice here.”
It is important that we commemorate the tragedy of May 1998, a time when our belief in the supposed forces of public order was shaken to the very core. But the lack of accountability is, ultimately, even more tragic than the events themselves.
There needs to be a full and thorough explanation for what happened, with those at the root of the violence held to account in a manner that is transparent and open.
There are many things to celebrate about the reform era — direct elections, press freedom, economic reform, some gains in the battle against corruption — but the fact that our society has largely ignored facing up to May 1998 leaves the victims embittered and the rest of us uncertain.
The rule of law is the single greatest resource any nation has to guide its thinking in times of peril and to provide a framework for prosperity. It is a fundamental principle that no one should be immune to the law and that criminal acts should be uncovered without fear or favor.
That is obviously a tall order when dealing with May 1998. Whoever was ultimately responsible, the sad consensus has been that they are beyond the reach of the justice system. They are too powerful, too well connected, perhaps too dangerous to be unmasked.
But is that still true? This is no longer a dictatorship and we have made great strides toward bringing more responsibility to our system. We can and should investigate May 1998. To not do so is unfair to everyone. Those accused of involvement in the tragedy suffer because they cannot clear their names in a court of law, the victims of the tragedy suffer from a lack of closure and society suffers because May 1998 remains an open wound.