At the start of May 1998, students were holding peaceful demonstrations on university campuses across the country. They were protesting against massive price rises for fuel and energy, and they were demanding that President Suharto should step down.
On May 12th, students at a leading Jakarta university, called Trisakti, decided to take action. The Trisakti students, many of them the children of the elite, planned to march to parliament to present the government with their demands for reform.
Around midday, about six thousand students assembled on the four-lane boulevard in front of the university. The police and officialdom made it clear that the march was not on; no one from the ruling party Golkar seemed to want to meet the protesters. The students sat on the street, sang the national anthem and listened to speeches by fellow students.
By mid afternoon, most of the students had gone home. About two hundred remained.
Around 5 p.m., the police told the students they had 15 minutes to get off the street. Around 100 students stood their ground; the police charged, throwing tear gas, hitting people with batons and firing rubber bullets. More students retreated into their campus, from where they hurled rocks and bottles at the police.
Uniformed men on motorcycles appeared on the flyover which overlooks Trisakti. Shots rang out. Four students were killed by real bullets.
On the 13th of May I used reports about the shootings, from the Jakarta Post, in several of my lessons. My students were subdued. In the evening there were pictures on the TV news about riots that had broken out in the area around Trisakti. There had been serious damage to vehicles and stores; and there were rumours of several deaths.
I assumed that the trouble would not be allowed to spread beyond West Jakarta. Trisakti was at least ten miles distant from where I lived and worked. President Suharto was attending a conference in Egypt and the military top brass were off to Malang in East Java for some ceremony. The country’s leaders did not seem too worried by what was going on.
On the 14th of May I found the road into school was almost deserted. In the school car park I handed Mo, my driver, some money and a list of the families with TB he was to meet at the Harapan Kita children’s hospital. Mo ferried people to hospitals almost every day and on that particular day he was to meet Mukhlas, Sri and their mother. After Mo had departed, I remembered that the Harapan Kita hospital is very close to Trisakti University.
"Not many students in today," I said to Fergus, when I met him in the staffroom, before the start of lessons.
"I don’t know why they haven’t cancelled school," said Fergus.
"Expecting trouble?" I asked.
"There’s to be a staff meeting in a few minutes. The boss has some news."
Our soberly dressed, middle-aged boss looked fit and relaxed, a bit like a TV sports presenter. He announced that there had been rioting in several additional places in Jakarta; he could not be sure about safety on routes that would be used by certain students to get home; he had decided that some of the students and all of the staff should stay overnight at the school. The students who could not go home would spend the day doing sport, reading and watching videos. The embassy would advise us when roads had again become secure.
I found it difficult to believe that the normally friendly people of Jakarta were likely to attack students or teachers heading home from school. Surely the authorities were being overcautious; I did not like the idea of having to sleep on a staffroom floor.
At some point in the middle of the day, those of us not involved in supervising students gathered round a TV set in one of the classrooms. I was in for a surprise: the TV showed scenes of burning malls, looting and mobs smashing up cars; and not just in West Jakarta.
"That looks like Golden Truly supermarket!" said Carmen, pointing to pictures of young men leaping through shattered shop windows.
"That could be Yogya Plaza," said Fergus.
Melati, a winsome colleague of Chinese-Indonesian origin, had her mobile phone pinned to her ear. She passed on some information based on what she was hearing from a Chinese friend somewhere in the city. "They’re burning Chinese shops and houses. It’s spread to Kebayoran Lama." Melati’s face was white and tense. She would be worrying about her two young children.
A young, sporty colleague called Andy came into the room. "I sent my driver to the bank down the road," he said, with a wide grin. "The bank’s been trashed. The roof’s fallen in."
"Is there a crowd there?" asked Fergus.
"The driver said the locals had nothing to do with it. He was told that an unmarked military-style truck drove up; muscular men with short haircuts and walkie-talkies jumped out; and then they attacked the bank."
"Where is the military?" said Carmen, gesturing towards the TV screen. "Have you noticed? There’s no sign of any uniformed soldiers."
"I wonder if the Blok-M malls are being attacked?" said Fergus.
"If they’ve paid their protection money to the army," said Melati, as she dialled another number on her mobile phone, "they won’t be touched."
I decided it was time to retreat to my classroom for some solitude and music. As I was soothed by Canteloube and Puccini, I tried to come to terms with what was going on. Jakarta had seemed to be one of the world’s safer cities; most kampung people were hospitable and did not tolerate theft; but now there were mobs on the loose. What had it felt like in Pompeii when the first tremors occurred?
In mid-afternoon, much to my relief, I managed to locate my driver in the car park. He was washing the van’s front windows. Everything looked normal.
"You got back safely," I said. "Did you reach the Harapan Kita Hospital?"
"Everyone turned up at the hospital," said Mo, grinning slightly, "but the doctors told us we had to leave immediately. Even hospitals might be attacked."
Mo told me he had got back to the school relatively quickly as the roads had little traffic. He had seen crowds of people and some damaged buildings but most of Jakarta appeared trouble-free. He had heard that rioting had broken out in several new pockets. He had not seen any of the military.
That evening, lying on a classroom floor, I drifted in and out of sleep. At some point after 2 pm, the message came round that it had become safe to go home.
I hurried to my van and was driven through the long, dark, deserted streets. I could make out a supermarket which was lacking a roof and which had a little smoke rising from black timbers. Surrounding buildings were untouched. As we passed a kampung, a stone hit the side of the van, but I could not see anyone who might have thrown it. At a strategic point on the edge of my housing area, I was met by a crowd of around twenty men armed with sticks. These were my neighbours, mainly middle class Indonesians, some of them Chinese. They were seated by the roadside and were spending the night on guard.
There was a surprise for me when I entered my living room. Seated on mats on the floor was an Indonesian family. It was Mukhlas, Sri, their mum and various of Mukhlas’s big sisters. They gave me friendly smiles.
"When we left the hospital, we found they couldn’t get home to Bogor," said Mo, by way of explanation. "The roads weren’t safe. There were no buses."
I gave Mo a larger than normal tip for his day’s driving, checked with the maid that she had fed my guests, and decided to get some sleep.
When I awoke at around 8 am, Muhklas and family had already departed for Bogor. The maid explained that the buses were running again. I switched on the TV and saw that the military had made an appearance: there were army vehicles parked on some main streets. President Suharto was back from Egypt and there were more calls for him to resign. I opened my Jakarta Post and read that at least two civilians and three soldiers had been killed during the disorder of 14th May.
An independent report later claimed that over 1,000 people had died during these Jakarta riots, most having been burnt in malls and supermarkets but some having been shot or beaten. A government minister spoke of the damage or destruction of 2,479 shop-houses, 1,026 ordinary houses, 1,604 shops, 383 private offices, 65 bank offices, 45 workshops, 40 shopping malls, 13 markets, 12 hotels, 24 restaurants, 11 parks, 9 petrol stations, 11 police posts, 1,119 cars, 821 motorcycles, 8 buses, 486 traffic signs and lights. The police gave much lower figures: 1,344 buildings of all kinds, 1009 cars, 205 motorcycles.
On the 15th of May the media had little information about who might have organised the troubles. At a later stage, stories about the planning of the riots began to emerge.
A security officer alleged that twenty Kopassus officers had ordered the burning down of a Chinese owned bank in East Jakarta; a taxi driver reported hearing a man from a low-hovering military helicopter encouraging people to carry out looting in a part of South Jakarta; shop-owners at a Plaza in West Jakarta claimed that prior to the riots, military officers tried to extract millions of rupiahs in protection money; only certain buildings in certain districts seemed to have been targeted and there were cases where a row of shops, all part of the same building, were totally destroyed except for one in the middle; a teenager reported he had been trained as a protester with thousands of others in places such as Cilangkap, Bekasi, and Bogor; a witness described how empty trucks were going around recruiting youths with the promise of 20,000 rupiahs if they would join the mobs; a street child alleged that Kopassus officers gave him money and ordered him and four friends to become rioters; one report spoke of youthful soldiers being dressed up as high-school students and university students and then taking part in rioting; eyewitnesses spoke of muscular men with short haircuts arriving in military-style trucks and directing attacks on Chinese homes and businesses; there were reports of children being encouraged to enter malls and then of the malls being set on fire; there were allegations that muscular men with short haircuts had gang-raped little Chinese girls and then murdered some of them.
I spent the 15th of May at home but was not entirely without company. Midmorning there was a knock on the open door of the living room. It was young Irfan, my gardener, and he had brought along a friend called Tono who sought my help. I studied Tono, who was standing by the door; he sported blue school shorts, a slightly torn white shirt, longish hair, cheeky eyes and a cut on his forehead.
"Have you been looting and rioting?" I asked Tono, half jokingly.
"No mister," said Tono, with a grin suggesting charm and possible guilt. "I fell out of a tree."
I sent Irfan and Tono to see the local doctor and was told later that all was well.
There was a phone call from one of my bosses. The gist was that the embassy thought things might be turbulent for a few days as the army seemed to be divided; any staff who wanted to leave Indonesia temporarily could get a seat on a specially chartered British Airways plane that would fly from Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur on May the 16th.; accommodation would be provided at a top-class hotel in Kuala Lumpur; the school would cover all costs.
"What are other expats doing?" I asked.
"I heard that a few panicking parents headed for the airport yesterday. They were met on the roads by hoodlums and had to throw money out of the car windows so they could get through. Must have been scary. Fergus says he’s staying in Jakarta, with some Indonesian girlfriend. Carmen agrees with me that a few days holiday in Malaysia would be nice."
"I’ll join the flight."
"Travel light. But bring any important documents you don’t want to risk losing."
During the afternoon, half-Chinese Andri and happy Hermanto paid a brief visit.
"Did you know there were going to be riots? I asked.
"Yes," said Hermanto, looking at ease. "Most people knew."
They assured me they had not joined in and knew nothing of the perpetrators. They had come to my house to play games of cards.
Father Sandyawan Sumardi, a 40-year-old Jesuit priest and son of a police chief, led an independent investigation into the events of May 1998.
As a member of the ‘Team of Volunteers for Humanitarian Causes’ he interviewed large numbers of people who had witnessed the alleged involvement of the military in organising the riots and rapes.
In July 1998, Father Sandyawan’s evidence was presented to the United States Congress.
Sandyawan claimed that the leaders of the looting and burning and the perpetrators of the gang-rapes were muscular men, wearing military boots.
These ‘goons’ had been transported into Jakarta in trucks.
Some weeks after Sandyawan had begun his research, a live grenade was found in his office and then a military van rammed into the back of his car.
In October 1998, Amnesty International reported that an 18-year-old girl called Martadinata, who had been working for Sandyawan’s group, had been found dead in her home. Her throat had been cut and she had stab wounds in various parts of her body.