Power Alone Isn’t Enough in Indonesia
Three decades of rule through abuse of power and might came to an end on the streets of Jakarta last month with shocking but, regrettably, predictable consequences: the rape of perhaps hundreds of Chinese women.
The May riots exposed the most powerful expressions of might in any society: military force and male sexual dominance. Tanks were wielded effectively and self-servingly by the Suharto government. Why, the world asks, did these guns fail to stop the rape of Chinese women?
But guns alone cannot stop violence. Only respect for humanity and submission to rule of law can protect people. Both were lacking in the Suharto administration.
Women and the poor are the most vulnerable in any society. Chinese Indonesian women raped and killed during last month’s riots were the victims of a culture of abuse expressed through physical violence. Indonesia’s poor suffer from a culture that condoned exploitation and economic violence.
Indonesia now must renounce all forms of violence against its most vulnerable peoples and make them the top priority in rebuilding economic and social structures.
It was two weeks after the resignation of President Suharto before the Indonesian public and the world learned the full horror of those last days. Our souls were rocked as we watched the story unfold in the televised testimony of 43-year-old Chaerul. Through tears, the Chinese Indonesian father told the National Commission on Human Rights how his wife and two daughters were burned to death by a mob. “There is no reason for me to go on living,” he said.
A woman named Tini witnessed her two sisters publicly gang raped, then thrown into a burning building to die. How many women or their relatives will find the courage to tell their stories of dehumanizing suffering?
Such wretched violence is an anomaly for such a gentle people. Indonesians are no more or no less human than others. My own ethnic group, Indonesian Chinese, is subject to periodic violence.
In general, I feel safer on the streets of Jakarta than I did in East Los Angeles, where I lived while studying at USC. However, during last month’s riots, my household spent the nights in great fear, as we live just a couple of miles from the areas of greatest conflict. The collusion of some Indonesian Chinese businessmen with the Suharto regime made our entire ethnic group a target.
In 1966, the Suharto regime emerged victorious from a violent power struggle, which cost half a million lives. The United States and the West, viewing Indonesia’s conflict as a part of the Cold War, lauded his victory. The “Free World” supported a regime that successfully rebuilt a shattered economy at the cost of freedom.
Over the past three decades, military, political and economic power was concentrated in the hands of Suharto, his family and his cronies. Rule of law was abandoned. Dissent was violently suppressed. Opposing opinion was gagged as newspapers and magazines were shut down.
The Suharto regime had little tolerance for alternate economic, political, social or religious power; these institutions were undermined and destroyed. The regime evicted people from prime land to make way for symbols of privilege: golf courses, condominiums and shopping malls.
Abuse by the powerful against the powerless permeated Indonesian society, breeding a culture that believes power is might, might makes right and abusive power is acceptable. In the end, we all looked up in fear and awe to the symbol of this power: Suharto.
And the people followed Suharto’s lead. High school students settled conflicts with gang wars. Mobs publicly beat pickpockets to death without legal consequence. Greedy businessmen and government officials colluded to loot state coffers and natural resources, with impunity.
The poor suffered most. Before Indonesia’s economic slump began last year, 14% of its nearly 200 million people lived in poverty. That number has since doubled, according to conservative estimates. More than 50 million people are now paying the price for unjust systems dating back to the country’s colonial period. That price includes millions of unemployed, a doubling of school dropout rates in poor communities and malnutrition among 40% of infants.
Indonesia’s economy and society must be rebuilt on a foundation of respect for human life and special concern for the poor and other vulnerable groups. The country’s future as a civilized society depends on it.