Monday 4 June 2018

Chinese Whispers: The Mass Rapes In May ’98, Indonesia, Exposed

Written by Monika Winarnita, La Trobe University and Ken Setiawan, University of Melbourne
Young Indonesian people like me don’t know anything about the May 1998 violence. How will you engage with them beyond social media selfies? 
A female student asked this of Rani Pramesti, a Chinese Indonesian artist who was discussing her digital graphic novel, Chinese Whispers, at an event in Melbourne commemorating the 20th anniversary of Indonesia’s May 1998 violence.

More than 100 people, mostly Indonesians from various ethnic groups living in Melbourne, attended. Other women with Chinese Indonesian heritage who presented their artistic and literary work at the event included survivor-artist Elina Simbolon and journalist and author Dewi Anggraeni.

File 20180531 69514 1g0eqxh.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Elina Simbolon, installation art for the 20-year commemoration of the May 1998 events.Yacinta Kurniasih, Monash University

Twenty years ago, in the lead-up to and following the resignation of long-time Indonesian ruler Soeharto on May 21, violence erupted in which the Chinese Indonesian minority was targeted. This included mass rapes and sexual assaults of Chinese Indonesian women by organised groups acting under orders of the security forces in major Indonesian cities such as Jakarta, Medan and Solo.

Despite evidence of gross human rights violations, the cases were never brought to court. Justice for the victims and survivors thus remains elusive. There is persistent denial and silencing of this violence.

When an initial report on the violence was made public in 1998, the state denied any involvement. The rapes were also denied in media reports on the event, as well as in statements by high-ranking government officials.

Groups working with victims were threatened. One victim, who had agreed to testify at the United Nations, was murdered.

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Voices of Chinese Indonesian Women

In commemorations of May 1998 over the past two decades, Chinese Indonesian women’s voices have long been absent. The work of Rani, Elina and Dewi presented in Melbourne fills a void in public knowledge of a dark chapter in Indonesian history. At the same time, their voices continue to be contested.

Human rights organisations, including the National Commission for Women’s Rights (Komnas Perempuan), have persistently demanded attention to the violence against women in 1998. However, much of their work has framed the events as a violation of the rights of all Indonesian women, leaving out the racial motives from the narrative of gender-based violence.

Similarly, efforts to mark sites of violence (for instance, through the May 1998 memorial in Jakarta), have placed May 1998 under a broader story of regime change. While this may enhance awareness, it avoids issues central to the violence: the systemic discrimination against Chinese Indonesians, the position of women, and the use of sexual violence as a tool of repression.

Diaspora Commemoration

Around three months after the May ’98 violence in Indonesia, the Huaren Chinese diaspora online group organised a commemorative event in Sydney to discuss what happened. The event discussed at length the human rights violations against those of Chinese descent, emphasising male testimonies. While the event was important, it downplayed the gendered ethnic violence against Chinese Indonesian women.

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