Foreign Bases Project on Sun, 2 Aug 1998 19:19:02 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Flaws of riot media coverage

This offers a rare analysis about the riot and rape of May 13-15 in
Jakarta. The writer is an Indonesian (of Chinese descent) professor at
National University of Singapore. His dissertation is about State

 The Jakarta Post 15 July 1998

 Flaws of riot media coverage

 by Ariel Heryanto

 The mid-May violence in Jakarta and several other cities could be best
 described as a racialized state-terrorism, rather than racially-motivated
 mass riots.

 Failure to recognize the difference has been alarmingly endemic in
 media coverage. This is especially rampant in the foreign media, otherwise
 sympathetic towards the victims and the future of Indonesia. Not only can
 such misleading coverage boost racial antagonism, more seriously, it
 implicitly exonerates the real culprits.

 State-terrorism is a series of state-sponsored campaigns that induce
 intense and widespread fear over a large population, involving minimally
 these three elements. First, fear is derived from spectacularly and
 severely violent actions conducted by state agents or its proxies.

 Secondly, the violence is directed against individuals or social groups, as
 representatives of a larger population. Third, the violence is displayed as
 public spectacles, so that the intended message of victimisation is  widely
 disseminated. The aim of a state-terrorism is to spread greater fear  among
 the large population against whom similar violence could happen at any

 At present we have less than unequivocal evidence to indicate who exactly
 must bear the greatest responsibility for the violence last mid-May.

 Nonetheless, reports of independent investigations by non-governmental
 organisations and testimonies from witnesses confirm a widespread
 suspicion that the case has the qualities of state-terrorism as
 characterised  above.

 Eye-witnesses described the riot instigators as heavy-built males with
 crew-cut who wore military boots. Some rape victims saw security  uniforms
 in the van where the rape took place. While such testimonies may be
 sincere, they are not adequate for any conclusions to be drawn. Other
 indicators are called for.

 Any one familiar with Indonesia is fully aware that no social group outside
 the state can possibly have even half of the capacity to conduct the
 violence of the magnitude and effectiveness as taking place in Jakarta  and
 Surakarta two months ago.

 No racial or ethnic groups in Indonesia, no matter how agitated, could
 possibly inflict a systematic violence in which 1198 lives (of which 27
 died from gunfire) were lost, 150 females were raped, 40 shopping malls
 and 4,000 shops were burned down and thousands of vehicles and of houses
 were set afire simultaneously in 27 areas in a capital city of 10 million
 inhabitants in less than 50 hours. All was done without the culprit having
 to confront the state security forces or face indictment!

 The violence was just too perfect to leave any doubts about the narrow
 range of potential suspects. To have a better perspective, the following
 points are helpful. First, while no civilian groups in the affected  areas
 had either the power or experience to take any active involvement such
 violence, the Armed Forces has both in politically-trouble spots of the
 nation: Irian, Aceh, and East Timor.

 Second, May's violence was not the first of its kind in Java. It was a
 recurrence of a series that followed a pattern. This century has  witnessed
 periodic attacks against the ethnic Chinese. None of these attacks appeared
 to have been conducted spontaneously by local, angry, and  poverty-stricken
 masses of other ethnic groups.

 In 1983 thousands of convicted criminals across Java were systematically
 slaughtered in front of their families, and their dismembered bodies were
 displayed in the busiest spots of public places (schools, shops, or movie

 The qualities of state-terrorism look glaringly obvious I many of these
 events. Locals are aware of what happened. Yet, what appeared in the media
 both inside and particularly outside Indonesia curiously betrays the
 phenomena. Most news reports, investigative journalism, interviews, or
 opinion columns on the events of May have focused only on racial issues.

 The history of the Chinese immigrants, their relations with locals, and
 their disproportional control of the nations' economy have all been
 discussed. Central to the dominant media coverage of Indonesia's riots is
 an allegation of who was responsible for the mass destruction: ethnically
 the so-called pribumi (natives), economically deprived, and angry at the
 Chinese. These allegations sometimes come with condemnation, sometimes with

 The former portrays the Chinese as purely innocent victims. The latter
 recite the problematic mantra to the effect that the Chinese constitute
 only 3 percent of the population but controls 70 percent of the nation's
 economy. Either way, the society is perceived to consist of only the  good
 and bad guys.

 Those blaming the poor masses are not only being unfair to the accused,
 but unwittingly helping the state-terrorism by protecting the perpetrators.
 These high-moralising journalists and observers are free to expand  their
 imagination, because the accused have no access to rebuke their  accusers,
 especially in foreign media. Those who defend the pribumi are being
 self-defeating. Underlying their act of defending the pribumi by
 rationalising the act of looting, burning, or raping, is an acceptance  of
 the accusation that it was the pribumi masses who had actually  committed
 the crimes.

 Either way, both camps in the debate miss the point. By locating the riots
 in the racial framework, both intensify the familiar tendency to racialize
 the population and people's imagination in various directions. Some
 militantly promote Chinese identities in culture, arts, history or  party
 politics. Others emphasise exacerbating inter-racial hostility. Both
 exempt state agents from serious questioning and possible prosecution. No
 wonder gang rape continues well into the second month following the mid-May

 Once entangled in a racial framework, many commentators draw comparisons
 from Indonesia's situation with unrest in Malaysia in 1969 or the Los
 Angeles riots in 1992. Such comparison is useful, but for reasons that  are
 contrary to those commonly presented. In both Malaysia and Los Angeles
 violent conflicts involved primarily segments within the civil society,
 each generally identified with ethnic markers. That is precisely what
 distinguishes them from the Indonesian case.

 In Indonesia the agent provocateurs had no ethnic identity. Nor did they
 come from any particular groups within the civil society. They victimised
 more than one ethnic group, although those of Chinese descent were  their
 primary targets. In this sense, the violence can better be described as
 racialized than racist. It adopted racial colorings, apart from patriarchal
 brutality, but the motive was not genuine racism.

 No wonder the so-called pribumis were not left entirely untouched by the
 violence. Many pribumis risked their own safety when offering a helping
 hand to individual Chinese strangers both during the violence as well as
 afterwards. Public condemnation against the state, and aid campaigns  for
 the victims have flourished among pribumi activists.

 As repeatedly aired in public in Indonesia, the state suspiciously came out
 late with any remarks about the gang-rapes. All the aforementioned is not
 to deny that racial problems in Indonesia exist, more specifically the
 problems between the Chinese minority and self-proclaimed pribumi majority.
 What I am arguing is that existing racism among members civil society was
 not responsible for the recent riots,  nor most other major anti-Chinese
 riots in past decades. This racism must  be clearly distinguished from the
 effective racialized, masculine, and militarized state-terrorism that most
 analysts choose to ignore.

 As elsewhere, racism in Indonesia flares up in household conversations,
 jokes, gossips, or private quarrels. Such pervasive sentiment partly
 explains the ease with which terrorism evolved last May. However, it  did
 not cause the mass burning, raping, or looting. It simply does not have
 the capacity. Rather than causing the May riots, civilian racism has been
 affected and intensified by both the patriarchal state-terrorism and the
 racializing media coverage.

 (The writer is with the Jakarta-based feminist journal, Jurnal

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