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Twenty years on, victims of 1998 Indonesia violence still seek justice

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Twenty years on, victims of 1998 Indonesia violence still seek justice
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By Jessica Damiana

JAKARTA (Reuters) – For the past decade, Indonesian housewife Maria Sanu has joined a small group of protesters at a silent weekly vigil outside the presidential palace in Jakarta, seeking justice for her son who died during the political turmoil of 1998.

Around 1,200 people were killed in the capital, mostly trapped in burning buildings, as mobs rampaged through the streets and attacked shops at the height of the Asian financial crisis in May 1998.

The riots preceded the resignation on May 21 of late strongman president Suharto, who had ruled the world’s fourth-most populous country with an iron fist for 32 years.

Sanu’s 16-year-old son Stevanus is believed to have perished when a Jakarta mall was set ablaze, though his remains have never been identified.

“He had been playing football in a mosque nearby. I went there, but it was deserted. His friend told me he had gone to Yogya Plaza Mall,” said Sanu, 70, referring to the mall where several hundred people are believed to have been burnt alive.

“I feel empty and something is missing. I want his unnatural death resolved,” said Sanu.

Students leading the protests were also targeted, with some shot or kidnapped. Many of the victims were from the Chinese community, a minority in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country and sometimes resented for their perceived wealth.

But even with the ushering in of democracy, Sanu said she and some other riot victims had not received compensation or enough support.

An independent fact finding team set up to investigate the riots found that 85 mostly ethnic Chinese women were sexually assaulted, but authorities dropped the inquiry, citing a lack of evidence.

Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) says submitted human rights complaints have often been returned because they were incomplete.

  “Our human rights abuse report files have been returned by the Attorney General’s Office more than five times,” said Beka Ulung Hapsara of Komnas HAM.

Jaleswari Pramodhawardani, an official at the presidential chief of staff’s office, said post-1998 governments had sought to help victims but sometimes it was ad hoc, so the current government was trying to integrate responses from agencies.

She said some compensation had been paid, while the government was working with Komnas HAM to resolve past rights abuses.


The silent “Kamisan” (Thursday) gatherings started in 2007 and were partly inspired by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of woman demanding justice over the disappearance of their children during Argentina’s military dictatorship.

Kamisan members wear black shirts and hold up black umbrellas in what they say symbolises persistence​.

Retired civil servant Maria Catarina Sumarsih feels President Joko Widodo, who is expected to seek re-election next year, has failed to make progress.

“During his presidential campaign, he committed to erase impunity and resolve human rights violation cases,” said Sumarsih, whose son​ was shot dead in late 1998 while helping another student who had been wounded during clashes with security forces. 

(Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Kim Coghill)

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