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Pressure for reform grows in Indonesia

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Bangkok, Thailand

The news from Jakarta, Indonesia, has taken on a certain chilling monotony in the last four weeks, and no one is predicting a quick end to the violence.

The drum beat of recent news reports tells part of the story:

“Indonesian security forces battled rock-throwing protesters, and street mobs attacked suspected police informants with wooden staves and stones.”

“Six die in Muslim-Catholic riots in Jakarta.”

“Churches vandalized, girls school ablaze.”

“Fifty-four were injured in Semarang, capital of Central Java when security forces baton-charged a group of students marching on military headquarters to protest recent violent treatment of students in Jakarta.”

Mob violence is hard to comprehend at a distance, but understanding is helped when that crowd takes on a single human face.

Bernardinus Realino Norma Irmawan, known as Wawan, was a face in the crowds at Atama Jaya Catholic University, in Jakarta on Friday, Nov. 11. He died that day at 6 p.m., a bullet from a soldier’s rifle lodged in his heart.

For the preceding four days, thousands of Indonesian students had been in the streets protesting the People’s Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat or MPR), which opened in special session Nov. 10 to schedule national parliamentary elections and begin a restructuring of the Suharto-era political system.

The students called the MPR special session a farce and demanded true reform. Armed Forces Chief Gen. Wiranto called the protests “unlawful attempts to forcibly occupy the parliament by mobs.”

Indonesian President B.J. Habibie, who pinned his international reputation and political future on the success of the MPR special session, instructed the armed forces to use whatever means necessary to control the “subversive forces.”

The MPR assembly building was ringed with barb wire, tanks and troops. The army supplemented their ranks with 125,000 “Pam Swakarsa” (volunteer civilian guards) who received 25,000 rupiah (approximately $28) per day. Human Rights Watch says that the Pam Swakarsa were recruited largely from groups who disagree with the student protests.

What began as a tense standoff between students turned into bloody, hide-and-seek street fights. Security forces were supposed to be using rubber bullets and blanks. But bullets taken from 18 bodies on the night of Nov. 13 were not rubber.

On that Friday a large group of student protesters sought refuge on the campus of Atama Jaya. Soldiers took up positions outside the school and began to shoot into the crowds.

Nikolas Simanjuntak’s office is next door to Atama Jaya University office. A lawyer active in Catholic intellectual circles, he wisely stayed away from the office Nov. 13. But next day he found office windows broken, the interior ransacked and stones and shell casings on the floor.

Real bullets

Simanjuntak says the shell casings were from blanks, rubber bullets and live ammunition. “I know they used real bullets,” he said. “My security guard is a retired soldier. He knows what they are and how to identify them.”

Wawan, an economics major in his seventh semester at Atama Jaya Catholic University, was on campus that day working with the Volunteer Teams for Humanity. He was helping evacuate casualties from the field, carrying bodies to ambulances and contacting victims’ family members.

At one point, racing to snatch from harm a casualty who had just fallen, Wawan stopped short. He collapsed. He was shot through the heart. Volunteer Team members rushed him to Jakarta Hospital where he died.

The Volunteer Team carefully documented the tragedy: the 18 people who died on Nov. 13 were six university students, two high school students, two police officers, a private security guard for the Hero Supermarket, four Pam Swakarsa and three people still unidentified. Meanwhile, 456 people were injured from gun shots and beatings, including a 6-year-old girl, wounded by a stray bullet and still in critical condition.

“I was there collecting names of the dead and injured,” one man told me over the phone. “We had to collect the names and data immediately so the bodies wouldn’t be disappeared. They take the bodies away so they can’t be used at memorial services.”

Who takes the bodies away?

He said he didn’t want to talk anymore. “You never know what phone is safe,” he said. He said he would communicate by E-mail using a nickname.

Karlina Leksono, coordinator of the Voice of Concerned Mothers, was in her office about three kilometers from Atama Jaya Catholic University on Nov. 13. She was on the telephone calling for and dispatching ambulances for the wounded. “When we ran out of ambulances, we found private cars.” She also called embassies in Jakarta to tell them of the shooting and ask them to pressure the government to stop.

At one point hospitals called in to ask Leksono’s group to find surgical supplies. They were running out of needles and sutures.

But the violence did not stop. A week later, on Nov. 22, a street scuffle outside a late-night gambling den escalated into a Muslim-against-Christian rampage that ended with 16 people dead, several mosques stoned and 13 churches and a girls’ school run by Ursuline nuns torched and ransacked.

“St. Ursuline’s is my daughter’s school,” Leksono said. “They had a day of recollection planned for that day. My daughter didn’t go, but her whole class was there.” They were safely evacuated.

No guarantees

“It’s so scary,” Leksono said. “There is no guarantee that one day your school or your church or your mosque won’t be damaged by some group.”

Officials explained it away as sectarian conflict that religious leaders immediately tried to quell. But people were not convinced. Chat rooms and bulletin boards on Internet Web sites that track Indonesian news carried reports that this, too, was instigated violence against a vulnerable minority. Less than 10 percent of Indonesia’s 202 million people are Christian.

For the next week, media reports coming from far-flung corners of the 20,000-island archipelago told of student protests broken up or suppressed. In a phone interview, one man in Jakarta described the violence. “This morning,” he said, “we got news that a mosque was burned in Kalimantan (Indonesia’s Borneo Island). And just in the last two hours a Catholic church was destroyed in Ujunpadang. I just heard the news now.”

On Nov. 30, a major confrontation erupted in predominantly Christian Kupang in eastern Indonesia. Four Catholic and Protestant youth groups organized a rally in Kupang meant to mourn the attack on Christian churches in Jakarta. The rally began peacefully, but as the crowd swelled to several thousand, “it got out of hand.” Kupang’s largest mosque, the Nurus-Saadah mosque, and two small mosques were attacked.

Jakarta’s Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja and Bishop Petrus Turang of Kupang, in Jakarta for the annual meeting of the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference, asked Catholics to help rebuild burned mosques. Darmaatmadja said he would organize a fund-raising campaign to reconstruct the destroyed mosques.

One of the unanswered questions is who is behind the violence?

Could it be anarchy in a society ready to implode? In the last year, 15 million to 20 million Indonesians have lost their jobs. Crops devastated by the effects of El Niño last year, inflation running an average of 70 percent for the year (the price of rice and cooking oil has tripled), and a state-run food distribution bureaucracy near collapse means nearly 50 million people find it difficult to feed themselves. UNDP and UNICEF have documented rising malnutrition.

Last May, when the students took on the military government structures and toppled Suharto’s 32-year reign, they were supported by the middle class and business people. The crowds who stood with the students in the November confrontations were largely the urban poor, some observers noted.

Street crime is rampant. In the daytime, gangs swoop down on cars stopped at traffic lights, stealing car mirrors and robbing drivers. Muggings on public buses and in taxis are widely reported.

“It is not recommended for you to go out,” Simanjuntak said. He is a big man, not the type who looks like he would be intimidated. But, he said, “Even me, I am scared to go out.” He said he avoids going to public places alone.

“The situation now is very bad,” said one source. He has spoken on the record before, but now he wants to be anonymous. “The situation now is beyond any imagination. All is confusing,” he said.

Another person’s E-mail said, “We’re in a very uncertain situation. There are too many questions. Too many issues. Too many things covered up. And no solutions. It is very uncertain.”

Outlook is ‘gloomy’

Al Adang of the Volunteer Team said, “The near-term prospect is gloomy. Some people have tried to use religious issues to get their power. The last riots in Jakarta [Nov. 22] and Kupang [Nov. 30] showed how religion was used.”

Leksono admits that Indonesia has had ethnic and religious tension, “but this [spate of church and mosque burnings] is not genuine religious conflict.”

“This has been manipulated,” she said.

Darmaatmadja, the Jakarta archbishop, said he suspects that the Nov. 22 incident was organized to serve certain parties’ political interests, reported Tempo, an Indonesian weekly magazine that was banned under Suharto and recently reopened.

“It’s difficult for me to accept that these attacks on churches were spontaneous reactions to a rumor that a small mosque had been torched,” Tempo quoted the cardinal.

He said it appears “that the people have been exploited for political purposes.”
But whose purposes?

President Habibie has blamed his opponents for fomenting unrest to topple his government. He ordered the arrest and interrogation of 11 opposition leaders. The opposition suggests that Habibie is using students in the streets to solidify his relations with the military. Others say that Suharto is trying to engineer a comeback or at least that his supporters are behind the troubles.

The Volunteer Teams issued a press statement Nov. 14 strongly condemning the military as “protagonists” in the violence. The statement, signed by Jesuit Fr. Sandyawan Sumardi, pointed to the fact that the protests were peaceful until the students were attacked with “baton, tear gas and fired bullets.”

“The students, fully supported by the people, are not groups of youth who are easily instigated by political brokers or hired agents roaming around to desist their struggle for independence,” the statement said.

The Volunteer Team statement said the engineered violence is designed to divide society into many blocks. Now, two factions are vying for political advantage.

“The first are those who want the status quo. They are Habibie’s faction, backed by the right-wing Muslems. The other side are those who are usually called the prodemocratic faction. The students who rally almost everyday are in this faction.”

Western media report that the students are gaining momentum in their demands for more political change. Not all Indonesians agree. Some say public support for the students is waning. “The students are becoming the black sheep,” a source said. “The support from the people, which they got especially since some of them were shot, is being destroyed.

“Now there is a dispute if they should continue the demonstration or stop for a while to minimize the victims,” he said.

Leksono disagrees. Public support for the students remains strong, she said. People gave members of her group food and drinks to give the students during the Nov. 9-13 demonstrations. “They believe the students are genuine.

“People believe the students came to take part in peaceful demonstrations. And they trust the students because they have no vested interests. [People know] they were provoked.”

Leksono added, “But the students will not stop. They will keep up until there is justice.”

Student demands are clear. They want former president Suharto taken to court for corruption. They want the armed forces’ so-called dual function ended. The military now occupies a number of unelected seats in the government, and the students want that political function ended.

The students were in the streets again Dec. 3. Bus loads of students in school jackets blockaded Jakarta’s main thoroughfare, as Habibie announced national elections for June 9.

Nearly every source warned that elections would not reduce violence. They all expect more. Simanjuntak said it most succinctly: “We’re preparing for the worst. We’re holding our breath.”

Further coverage of the indonesian situation is available from the Human Rights Watch’s Web site; click the link below, then click the Indonesia link under Current Events. Note that linking to other sites is a service to readers and does not imply affiliation. Use your browser’s Back button to return here.

  • http://www.hrw.org/

National Catholic Reporter, December 18, 1998