Date: Thu, 10 Sep 98 22:55:25 CDT
/** headlines: 157.0 **/
Date: Mon, 31 Aug 1998 17:10:43 +1000 (EST)
The Chinese rapes, economic depression, and Indonesian communalism
Inside Indonesia, digest 68, 31 August 1998
As Nazi Germany blamed the Jews for its economic ills, as Hansonite Australia blames Asians, so now Habibie's Indonesia is moving from mere rhetoric against the Chinese to real acts of terror.
In mid-July the Volunteers Team released a report claiming they knew of 152 women of Chinese extraction who had been pack raped or otherwise sexually abused during the racially charged riots in Jakarta 13-14 May. Twenty of the victims died. Possibly many other victims remained unknown to the Team.
This and other evidence, not all of it as good as the Volunteers Team report, made headlines throughout the world. It evoked outrage against Indonesia and Indonesians among the Chinese community throughout East and Southeast Asia.
Indonesian authorities promised an impartial investigation. However, in mid-August new national police chief Roesmanhadi stated he believed no rapes had occurred. He added that NGOs (meaning the Volunteers Team) who had said they had may be charged with spreading malicious rumours. Lower ranking police officers echoed his words.
Despite protests from Indonesian human rights workers against Roesmanhadi's statement, so many senior government officials reiterated his words that denial of the rapes now appears to be a considered policy.
On 24 August the chief of the intelligence agency Bakin, retired Lt-Gen Moetojib, said he had found no evidence for the rapes. Deputy speaker of parliament Abdul Gafur told an American congressional delegation on 26 August that overseas reporting of the rapes had been distorted by 'certain elements'.
Information Minister Yunus Yosfiah was quoted on 27 August as saying that Armed Forces Commander Wiranto had submitted a police report to cabinet repeating the official belief that no rapes had occurred. Lt-Gen Yunus Yosfiah challenged foreign investigators to come and see for themselves.
To cap it all, Women's Minister Tuty Alawiyah also said after this cabinet meeting that the issue of the rapes, which she said were unproven, had caused the government a lot of problems due to overseas pressure.
Why is the government in such a hurry to deny the rapes occurred when they are attested by reliable sources? The reasons appear to be twofold. One is that denial is an almost automatic response to international pressure. Foreign Minister Ali Alatas also had his say on the issue, along the usual lines that pressure was counter-productive. This is a troubling sacrifice of the truth to diplomatic expediency. However, the other reason, more troubling still, has to do with domestic politics.
Worldwide Chinese solidarity condemning the rapes in turn evoked defensive Islamic sentiment in Indonesia. Anger focussed on one anonymous account by a rape victim widely circulated on the internet ('Vivi') in which rapists shouted praise to Allah ('Allahu akbar') during their vicious act. Some photos of alleged rape victims on the internet have indeed been proven to be false. The Volunteers Team report has meanwhile been ignored.
Popular sentiment has thus subsumed the truth into Chinese-vs-Muslims communal bigotry. Indonesian human rights workers are now widely portrayed on Indonesian internet discussions as 'traitors' who deserve to die.
The post-Suharto Indonesian government is so weak, and desperation over the collapsed economy so explosive, that the temptation is strong for top government officials to exploit this communal sentiment. They stand to gain in several ways: they win popularity in large sections of the community (though at the expense of some others), they divide the community and thus paralyse opposition, and they deflect attention from the need for reform.
Government denial of the rapes, in my view, must unfortunately be interpreted in this way.
Such disregard for the rule of law at the highest level is a most dangerous development for Indonesia. It represents a direct threat to the safety of the Volunteers Team, as well as to other human rights workers, and to Chinese Indonesians throughout the country.
Gerry van Klinken, editor, 'Inside Indonesia' magazine.