Jakarta. Heratetty will never forget the day she received news that her son was shot and killed during a student-led rally demanding the resignation of then-president Suharto at Trisakti University.
Her son, Elang Mulia Lesmana, 20, along with Heri Hertanto, 21, Hafidin Royan, 22, and Hendriawan Sie, 23, were fatally shot by the Indonesian Military on May 12, 1998, a day that started with what were supposed to be peaceful demonstrations organized by university students from all over the country.
A group of more than 6,000 students, lecturers and staff members had gathered at the campus of Trisakti University in West Jakarta, with plans to march toward the House of Representatives (DPR/MPR) building in peaceful protest against a regime that was losing control of the country’s plummeting economy.
However, with a barrage of security forces blocking their path — which included the Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob), Army Strategic Reserves (Kostrad) and the Jakarta Military Command’s (Kodam) riot squad — the crowd was brought to a halt several hundred meters away from the gates of the university. Aware of their limitations, they chose to conduct a sit-down before returning to the campus.
What happened next remains unclear. Students reported shouting, taunts being hurled at them from security personnel.
Then the shooting started.
The military and police opened fire, causing the youths to disperse in frightened panic. Elang and Hendriawan were shot trying to return to the university campus.
Several hours later, a group of protesters who managed to return to the campus gathered in the courtyard to discuss what had happened, unaware they were the target of soldiers who had climbed onto rooftops with sniper rifles.
Several more shots rang out, killing Heri and Hafidin.
News of the students’ deaths spread quickly, triggering three days of widespread riots throughout the city.
Still, when the looting stopped and the fires died down, as a blanket of brittle calm settled over the capital and Suharto stepped down from his 31-year reign as president, Heratetty’s pain was just beginning.
“God knows, back then, I did not even have the strength to eat by myself,” she said. “But God held my heart, and as the years went by, I learned to let go.”
Sixteen years later, Heratetty is still waiting for justice, clinging to the hope that one day someone will have the courage to resolve the senseless shooting of her son and his three friends, whose only mistake was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“It’s been 16 years, there have been four presidents, but none have shown the guts to solve the case,” she said. “My hope has never faded, but waiting for justice to come from the government is [futile],” she said.
Christianto Wibisono, founder of the Indonesian Business Data Center (PDBI) who had actively criticized the government’s policy during its New Order regime, was a victim of the anti-Chinese sentiment that arose during the 1998 riots, in which countless Chinese-Indonesian women were assaulted and raped.
His daughter's house was among those that were torched during the chaos, which claimed approximately 1,190 lives and injured 118, according to the report by a joint fact-finding team. However, Jakarta Police released different data, saying 451 people were killed and an unrecorded number of people wounded.
Like Heratetty, Christianto has forgiven the perpetrators of the traumatic event, saying it is now time to look to the future.
“But as much as we have forgiven, we cannot forget easily,” he said. “The fact is that women were harassed and raped, innocent people suffered burns, minority Indonesian-Chinese citizens were killed in the riots... and the perpetrators have not been taken to court.”
Christianto also called the government and General Election Commission’s (KPU) decisions to allow the Kostrad chief at the time, Prabowo Subianto, to run for president a “blunder,” pointing out the fact that Prabowo has featured prominently in allegations as the primary instigator of the 1998 riots.
“The government and the KPU were supposed to prevent all parties involved in human rights violations to take part in the election,” he said. “The government has a great debt to this nation, to its people, to the victims’ families... by revealing facts about human rights violations. The government is hurting its image and existence of this nation before the international community,” he said.
“This nation is not brave enough to face its own history,” he added.
Andreas Harsono, a researcher with Human Rights Watch Indonesia, said the issue of human rights in Indonesia was a highly complex matter as it continued to overlap with the political interests of government officials.
The National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM) has called for an inquiry into the 1998 incidents, but the body is limited to investigating, with no power to bring suspected perpetrators to justice, Andreas said.
“Komnas HAM cannot force the people allegedly involved in human rights crimes to heed their summons. The institution’s authority is limited. That is why when Prabowo refused to comply to their summons, it could not force him,” Andreas said.
“Unlike the Corruption Eradication Commission [KPK], the human rights agency does not have the power to bring perpetrators to court. It actually grew weaker.”
Hafid Abbas, the newly appointed chairman of Komnas HAM, conceded that the commission was bound by legal limitations in pursuing Indonesia’s human rights abuse cases, saying the law only allowed the commission to carry out investigations and recommend action.
“The investigation of the 1998 human rights violation was conducted in 2006. We have submitted a report to the Attorney General’s Office, so it’s in their hands now,” he said, adding that the AGO had failed to launch an inquiry as recommended.
“There have been ad hoc trials on three human rights abuse cases that occurred in East Timor, Tanjung Priok and Makassar, but they [the AGO] also failed to bring anyone to justice,” Hafid said.
Andreas said that if Indonesia could not resolve its own human rights cases, it should ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The Rome Statute is the first permanent treaty based on the international criminal court of The Hague, in the Netherlands, which was established to help end impunity for perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.
Haris Azhar, coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), echoed Andreas’s sentiments, saying the government’s lack of willingness to resolve the cases was due to the political interests of its leaders.
“President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is trapped in the political interests of Indonesian human rights violators who still play a public role in this country,” he said. “It is not that they cannot solve the case, but that they are unwilling to do so.”
Hafid said the reluctance to probe the rights abuse cases was a historical burden that could hinder national development.
“It is highly risky if a nation is still carrying a dark past. We owe it to the Indonesian youth. Let them see the scars, let’s open the scars from the past so that we can heal the wound together,” he said.
“If the government, especially the next government, wants to open its mind to solving the human rights issues, there are many ways to go about that. Every nation has its own spirit, but when injustice is ignored, that kills the national spirit. This is why Indonesia needs to be open to rights cases, and if it does, it will surely grow to become a developed civilized country that will not carry a historical burden.”
Andreas said the government’s reluctance to address human rights issues was unwise.
“The consequence is that the country’s younger generations will never know their country’s history. Many of them will not know that government officials were involved in human rights abuses,” he said.
“If people like [Prabowo] are elected, that dark history could be repeated. We should look at other countries that have already taken steps to face their dark pasts. South Korea, Germany... both countries have built monuments, apologized to their people. South Korea even included human rights violations committed during its authoritarian military regime in the 20th century in its history books, so that the younger generation can learn,” he said.
Haris echoed the sentiment, saying that justice and reconciliation was important in order to move forward.
“Indonesia needs to show the younger generation its heroic soul — and show why this nation deserves to be a nation. It should also show the international community that Indonesia is ready to move on from its past by bringing the cases to court and punishing the perpetrators, if they are proven guilty,” he said.
“The nation needs to acknowledge it first to the public. Apologies are important but they’re not enough. If we let this drag on, there is a possibility that a similar incident could happen again in the future. We don’t want it to happen again, do we? That is why it is important for the government to solve the cases.”