20 Years of Reformasi

Reflections of May '98 Looters, Victims of the New Order's 'Organized Riots'

A week before the fall of Gen. Suharto, riots broke out in Jakarta targeting the country's ethnic Chinese communities and their businesses. Now experts say rioters and looters were tricked into escalating the unrest by the government.

by Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja
21 May 2018, 9:55am

Photo via Reuters

Mulyadi, then 16 years old, walked with hundreds others to a shopping center in Tomang, West Jakarta. It was May 15th, 1998. Earlier, a friend had managed to bring home a mattress and clothes from the shopping center for free. Mulyadi wanted free stuff too. After walking for 3 kilometers, he arrived at Roxy Mas (now ITC Roxy Mas).

Mulyadi remembered the day like it was just yesterday—it was the third day of the most chaotic week Indonesia since its independence in 1965—and called it the "Liberation Day", though the event is more commonly referred to as the May 1998 riots.

"It was really a liberation day," Mulyadi told me at a coffee kiosk in Grogol last week. "We were free to walk into shops and take things because everywhere was chaos."

When Mulyadi arrived at Roxy Mas, the worst of it had not yet started. The situation began to escalate when people realized police officers were blocking the entry to the shopping mall. Mulyadi remembered hearing some men encouraging others to loot shops owned by ethnic Chinese Indonesians inside the mall. Those men were the first ones to throw stones into the storefronts. The mob became violent. The police officers shot rubber bullets and tear gas, forcing some people to back away, but many more got away.

"Eventually the police blockade couldn’t handle the crowd," Mulyadi said. "People went in through the front basement, and we were tear gassed by the police inside."

Not every police officer was trying to keep looters out. Some of them let people take a few things, but not too many, Mulyadi said. Mulyadi and his friends managed to grab dozens of clothes but they were held at gunpoint by several police officers on the way out. "They told us to put down those clothes, so I walked out of there with nothing but bruises on my legs," Mulyadi said.

Mulyadi and his friends were still curious, so they walked to a nearby mall called Topas (now Roxy Square), which had less police presence. When they arrived, the mall was practically empty, and burning. Eventually, Mulyadi came home only with a can of cookies.

"I did it maybe because everyone was there, too," Mulyadi told me. "And also because I’m pribumi, so nothing was going to happen to me."

When the riot broke in Glodok, five kilometers away from Tomang, Junaedi and his five friends went to the heart of the chaos. The road was quiet. Smoke was coming out near the electronics malls Plaza Orion and Harco Glodok, and Junaedi could hear the sound of rubber bullets from a distance. People were running away from the chaos, but instead of following suit, then 17-year-old Junaedi and his friends ran towards the malls, where the windows were all broken.

There, strangers were encouraging him to take whatever he wanted from the pile of goods scattered on the street outside of the mall.

"This only happens once a year… once a year, man," one of them said.

Junaedi was conflicted.

"I wasn’t sure whether to take them or not," he said. "People were throwing out stuff from inside the Plaza."

The mob burning office furnitures near Glodok, Central Jakarta, on May 14, 1998. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Junaedi saw tens of people going inside Plaza Orion, passing electronics to one another, from 32-inch TV sets to Walkmans.

Junaedi and his friends went home with a walkman they found on the street. They didn’t dare go inside. On the way home, Junaedi met an old man who gave him an 14-inch TV set. "The old man said, 'One for me, one for you,'" Junaedi said.

Junaedi told me all of this on one quiet afternoon, at the Glodok intersection, right across Plaza Orion. Junaedi sat on a wooden chair with a cigarette on his hand, recalling one of the worst days in Indonesian history. Twenty years later, he told me that what he did was a big mistake.

"I regret it," Junaedi said. "Let’s hope it won’t happen again."

Right before the fall of the New Order, it was just as chaotic in Klender, East Jakarta. The burning of Yogya Plaza Klender took the lives of more than 400 people. Samsul Hilal, then 33 years old, was in the building to look for his nephew and neighbors.

He went inside just as fire broke out the second floor. From where he stood, he saw piles of tires around the stairs, blocking the exit. Samsul believed somebody was trapping him and hundreds others on purpose.

"The tires, the stairs, were set on fire inside," Samsul told me in his home. "It felt like a set-up. Earlier people were fighting, and then they destroyed the mall."

The crowd inside was mostly kids and teenagers pushing their luck to get as many things as possible. Samsul remembered one young boy asking him to grab a chandelier from inside the burning mall. Samsul agreed in the hope that the boy would leave. Instead, the boy walked upstairs, joining hundreds of others. Many of them never made it out alive.

Watch: Trials and Tribulations on the Street of Jakarta

"They weren’t afraid," Samsul told me. "They went upstairs, and once there they couldn’t go down. The stairs were too crowded, people were stuck. Some were stepped on, some fell over,” Samsul said. "It was the hardest times. That’s why people were looting. The economy was bad."

Before Samsul left the building, he stopped at a supermarket on the ground floor and stole seven bottles of mosquito repellents to share with his neighbors, and a kettle. It was dengue season at the time.

Between July 1997 to May 1998, the US dollar-rupiah exchange rate went up about 800 percent. Indonesia was unable to pay its debts, and within a year the country's GDP had fallen by 13.5 percent. Amidst the economic crisis, the New Order government raised gas prices by 70 percent. Unemployment rocketed. Indonesians' dissatisfaction with Gen. Suharto's policies during the economic crisis were taken to the streets, where people demanded the president's resignation.

Ethnic Chinese Indonesians, who were seen as dominating the country's economy, were turned into scapegoats by the New Order government. The Anti-Chinese sentiments led to the kidnappings of activists, rape of ethnic Chinese women, and riots that experts say were organized by the government.

A report by the fact-finding team tasked to investigate the cause and effects of the May 98 riots found that the shooting of Trisakti University students had created a martyrdom that triggered the riots. The "riots", which occurred throughout Jakarta had similar patterns: peaceful protesters gathered and provocateurs came and encouraged the crowd to burn wheels and start fights. They made each situation worse by destroying public facilities, and provoke others to do the same.

The report also mentioned that the provocateurs were physically trained men who came with weapons to destroy buildings and other public facilities. Some wore school uniforms but didn’t loot anything. This was what happened in Klender—Samsul told me that the riots were initiated by high school students throwing punches in a gang fight and ended at Yogya Plaza Klender.

Salah satu cabang bank Lippo di Jakarta Pusat dibakar massa pada 14 Mei. Foto via Reuters.

A day after the riot outside Tristakti University on May 13, more took place throughout Jakarta from 8 to 10 AM. Department stores were raided and burned. Public facilities, like gas stations and traffic signs, were destroyed. Vehicles and police stations were burned. In three days, in Jakarta alone, 1,188 people were reported dead. There were many more unreported deaths.

Unfortunately, none of the provocateurs were brought to justice after the fact-finding team's report was published in 1999.

“The May 1998 tragedy was basically a military operation," said Sandyawan Sumardi, a member of the fact-finding team. "It wasn’t a racial conflict, and definitely wasn’t caused by economic crisis. People misinterpreted what happened. It’s pretty stupid. Our hatred was led by a superficial problem. It's been proven that the tragedy was purely a military operation. They caused the conflict, so the New Order government can continue to rule Indonesia.”

Sandyawan and his team discovered that there were trainings three months before the riot that included not only the armed forces, but also civilians. They were called the "stealth unit".

“They were telling people things like, ‘You’ve been discriminated for so long. They made you poor. Take back your rights! Go to electronic stores. Take anything you want,'" Sandyawan said. "They were encouraging people to take revenge. Some said those people were very well-built. They looked really militaristic.”

Mulyadi, Junaedi and Samsul were lucky to make it home safely, unlike people like Muhammad Saparudin, who went by the nickname Endin. On May 15, Endin’s sister, Siti Prihati, had forbidden him to go to Yogya Plaza Klender. Endin insisted he was only going to a friend's house. But that became the last time Siti saw her brother. After the incident, her whole family was labeled as "looters" by neighbors.

People raiding a store near Trisakti University. Photo via Reuters

"There were people who bought stuff home, but my brother didn’t even come home," Siti told me. "We couldn’t find his body. We didn’t know where to go to find him. The only thing we can do is let him go.”

Feri Kusuma, a deputy at the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS), was part of the team that provided rehabilitation to the victims’ families, especially the ones who were killed during the riots. Feri said that the most difficult thing he had to do was helping families handle the stigma that's attached to them and their fallen family members until today.

"It’s like hiding the truth of what really happened," Feri told me. "This tragedy was human rights violation and systematically made by the New Order."

Feri said that there must have been individuals leading the looting, because otherwise others would have been too intimidated by the soldiers and police officers present.

"How could they have been that brave?" Feri said. "The riot wouldn't have happened if there were no leaders who pushed them to do it. Indeed there were people who became 'looters' in the tragedy, but was it really their fault?"