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Lest we forget

Publication Date : 12-05-2014


Many of us remember the horror of watching a sea of people ransack and loot shopping malls or modest kiosks across most of the city on May 13, 1998, with many of them perishing when fire razed the buildings, one day after four Trisakti University students were shot dead on their campus.

The state of lawlessness and disorderliness was further aggravated by attacks on people of Chinese ethnicity, with many of them sexually harassed or raped.

It was a time when violence prevailed, peace was shattered and common sense was lost. That happened when security personnel disappeared all of sudden, or appeared just after the damage had been done.

Parents, children and relatives of the people believed to be killed in the wanton destruction have not seen their loved ones since. They have joined the mothers and fathers of 13 victims of forced disappearance in 1997-1998 in demanding the state take responsibility for the injustice.

Several investigations have been conducted to find the truth behind the incidents that preceded the fall of the New Order regime. The National Commission on Human Rights concluded that the incidents were gross human rights violations. Dozens of security officers were convicted and discharged, but that has never answered the question of who was responsible for what the rights body called “systematic and massive” atrocities.

After four presidents, not only families of the victims of the May 1998 tragedy but the entire nation remained puzzled as to why Jakarta went on a rampage 16 years ago.

Strangely, many of the government officials and security officers who were in charge in those days and are still alive today seem to lack the initiative to discover or reveal the truth. More peculiarly, those who rose to power in the aftermath of the historic regime change of 1998 appear reluctant to push for clarity. In fact, the post-reform House of Representatives resisted efforts to bring those responsible for the tragedy to justice.

The 16th anniversary of the May riots comes in the face of the five-yearly election of national leaders. Certain candidates for president and vice president will feel the pressure and resent rights groups’ campaigns against them, which they deem as an attempt to foil their bid for power.

While such a “negative campaign” is unavoidable, we believe the presidential race should open the opportunity for all contenders to show their commitment to the revelation of truth.

For Prabowo Subianto, one of the strongest presidential candidates, it’s high time for him to come clean amid allegations that he played a role in the 1998 incidents even though he has never legally been held responsible.

For his main presidential rival Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the challenge is no less daunting as the public has not been made privy to his stand on past human rights violations and how he would help address them once and for all.

For President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, leaving a lasting legacy by helping to end the controversy surrounding the 1998 tragedy will be a lost opportunity if he remains silent until his second term ends in October.


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