The May 1998 Riots: 15 Years On
    Category: Column By : Taufik Darusman Read : 2319 Date : Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - 08:28:32

    For the past 15 years several families would gather every May 13, as they did last month, to hold prayers and lay flowers at the Citra Mall in East Jakarta, in memory of their loved ones who died inside the shopping center. On that fateful day, in 1998, at the start of what is now called the May 1998 riots, a crowd that included children were incited to loot the mall by what witnesses describe as “well-built men with crew cuts.” Once they were inside, the “provocators,” the term used by an official probe, locked all the doors and set the building on fire—no one survived.

    Every year, the victims' families repeat their demand that the government find the culprits behind the heinous act. Similar acts also took place in other parts of Jakarta during the two-day mayhem. Over 1,000 people are estimated to have died, leaving the capital city looking like a war zone: 5,723 buildings either torched or plundered and 1,948 vehicles burned, according to the Jakarta municipality. As Tempo noted, it was: “twenty times worse than the Los Angeles riots of April 1992.”

    Three months later President BJ Habibie appointed a Joint Fact Finding Team, TGPF, to investigate the riots and issue a report in 90 days. In November, the TGPF, headed by Komnas HAM (human rights commission) chairman Marzuki Darusman, presented not only facts but also an analysis of the riots: it was a power struggle within the political elite amidst a rapid economic deterioration. Marzuki noted that key players were in the field during the riots, including witnesses who saw “well-trained” individuals inciting crowds to loot and burn stores and houses. (Full disclosure: Marzuki is also my brother.)

    The riots took place during a behind-the-scenes power struggle between Gen. Wiranto, then the Armed Forces commander, and Lieut. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, the head of the Army's powerful Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad). It bore the hallmarks of a military operation, and only a handful of generals could have pulled it off. As such, Prabowo and Wiranto were shortlisted as the possible masterminds. 

    TGPF concuded its 28-page report with a set of recommendations, one of which is a white paper detailing the roles and responsibilities of “everyone” connected to the riots when they took place. Habibie duly took note of the report and put it on

    the backburner. In many ways the riots put an end to over three decades of Suharto's autocratic rule and put Habibie in power—what possible benefit would he gain from finding out who was behind them?