Indonesia in Focus
Ten Years after May 1998 Tragedy
This May we are commemorating the 10th anniversary of the May 1998 tragedy, which is better known as the May 1998 riots. This historic incident is an important life-changing milestone in many people’s lives, whoever they are. I lost my innocence in May 1998, politically and spiritually. In a few fast-paced heart-racing days, I realized many unthinkable and unimaginable things, including what human beings are capable of doing to fellow humans, which could have happened to a person like me: the targeted rape of Chinese women, the burning and looting of properties belonging to Chinese owners and the denial of such incidents by those in power.
On top of that, the on-going politics of amnesia by the state and the minuscule amount, if any at all, of structured and unstructured compassionate-based efforts experienced by those whose souls, sanity, dignity and tangible and intangible properties were dissolved unwillingly simply because they were born the “wrong” ethnicity.
There are several things we all need to take to heart and reflect upon, in light of better understanding of how things worked and may continue to work in Indonesia, if we don’t do anything about it.
While it might not make us comfortable at all to recall any atrocity that happened 10 years ago, it is very important that we consciously acknowledge the deafening silence, which might stem from psychological trauma, survival guilt or downright ignorance.
By acknowledging this phenomenon, I have a sincere hope that we will be called to at least take one minute of our time to remember those women who were sexually abused and raped, 1,338 killed, millions of dollars of property damage and indescribable psychological trauma to all who experienced it first-hand. Because, after all, today’s relative freedom that we are enjoying has been built upon the drops of their blood and the tears of their loved ones.
Silence of the common people. The notion of “compassion” itself is not very popular in Indonesia. I found difficulty in finding the most appropriate translation, other than bela rasa and belas asih for “compassion”. The word “compassion” itself derives from the Latin words “pati” and “cum”, which means “to suffer with”, as described by Henri Nouwen as entering into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish.
And it takes a strong will and courage to experience, not merely show, compassion. Thus, while it is understandable for the majority of those who reside in Indonesia to prefer to remain silent about such atrocities, it will prove to be meaningful if we all do something, no matter how minuscule, to ensure that the future will be free from such occurrences.
Silence of the intellectuals. Particularly in Indonesia, the so-called “intellectuals” have a very strong presence and whatever they say is likely to be listened to seriously. However, only a few scholars are willing to bring up the issues of May 1998 in academic forums. Unfortunately, due to the so-called “skeptical empiricism”, sincere efforts to discuss such issues often result in unfavorable results. Perhaps, we should make an exception this time: be an intelligent optimist.
I find this phenomenon to be mind-boggling, especially since academic forums are designed to not include emotions, be impartial and balanced, and to use strong theoretical frameworks. The key point here is to remind ourselves and to hopefully make some kind of statement opposing further human rights abuses.
Silence of government. This has been expected, but can no longer be tolerated. While activists are working hard to bring perpetrators of the May 1998 tragedy to justice, the government should be more proactive in its investigation activities. We all appreciate the government’s efforts to fund Rumah Kenangan, which is a museum for the tragedy, but we need more than preserving memories.
We owe our sisters and brothers justice, so their souls can rest in peace and their loved ones can stop crying and start living to the fullest.
The writer, Jennie S. Bev, is a columnist. She supports a petition for a new Indonesia at PeacefulIndonesia.com
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