18 Years Ago Today: May 98 and To Never Forget

The Jakarta Post
22 May 2016

Christine S. Tjhin

It was one dull thud, at first. Unnoticeable somewhat to the ear, but you can feel it on your skin.

Then came another, and another, and many other, and then the piercing sound of shattered glass, followed by screams.

I ended my email to my friend, saying I have to go because my house is being attacked.

As the screams got louder and rowdier, and as more rocks flew into my house, I ran downstairs and saw my dad. “Turn off the lights! Stay inside!” he said. Behind him are several small bags, filled with important documents he had prepared last week, right after the news of Trisakti students shot dead.

I grabbed my passport and the little money left in my wallet, then wondered if I should even bothered with ATM cards with all the lootings I saw on TV and heard from radios.

My aunt and uncle with my two younger sisters were already at the far corner of the house. The rocks kept coming. Metals clanking and scrapping. “They’re pulling down the gate,” my dad whispered. The rocks kept coming.

The sun soon faded and then no more rocks. Just random sounds, faint chants. Felt like a million years until dad came and told us to get out of the house quickly, because he can smell gasoline from outside.

Chants became screams, “Bakar! Bakar! Bakar!(Burn! Burn! Burn!)”, as we anxiously head towards the gate. Our three meter high metal gate had been derailed but unopened. The gate was tougher than the mob.

I could see thick black smoke coming from the looted minimart across the street. Rumors we heard about Chinese Indonesian women being attacked, raped and killed by raging mob boogied in my brain. As we edged out of the house through the skewed gate, I thought, “How is that fate better than being burnt inside the house?” I glanced at the faces of my two younger sisters, tried to suppress all kinds of ominous thoughts.

Young men, high schoolers I assumed, with genuine hatred screaming, “Cina anjing! Cina bangsat! (Chinese dogs! Chinese bastards!)”, pushed us, hit us, kicked, spat on us, threw things – sandals, garbage, whatever. Dad’s face, never seen his face like that.

Head down, we moved slowly away. With each hand or feet that touched any part of my body, I felt like throwing up. I frantically peered around trying to keep my sisters in sights as we were pushed and kicked around.  A few of the men stopped and flew into the house.

Out of nowhere, a tiny old lady appeared. Few more people came and formed human barricade. The old lady yelled at the mob, said they better stop because Pak Lurah and Pak Ustadz are coming. Come they did. We were lucky.

I can’t remember their faces anymore. That mob of livid teens. But I remember their warm spits on my face, on my chest.

I can’t remember the little old lady’s face anymore. That small human barricade. But I remember the sweet sense of safety in my chest, in my stomach. We were very lucky.

May 1998 changed my life. It changed Indonesia.

Before, I was the “typical middle-class Chinese Indonesian”, over-simply stereotyped as apolitical, economic animal and racist. After, I became the livid one and desperately wanted to escape. Getting the AUSAid scholarship to Canberra was a perfect blessing, I thought.

But the true grace was to meet a lot of gracious people – Indonesians, Australians and others – that inspired and encouraged me to be part of the ongoing discourse of that tragic May 98, of that exhilarating Reformasi, of becoming Indonesia. So I decided not to escape but to join in the fight with the very little I could offer.

Endeavors to seek justice and to ensure that May 98 never happen again have since rolled in high gear. But after a certain period of government and societal apathy, it began to run out of steam. Several notable Chinese Indonesian activists have moved on to other human rights agenda, Chinese Indonesian associations have been less involved in, if not outright dismissive of, May 98 related events. Those in power made promises, but none fulfilled – some had too little time or chance, others had too little will.

This year is different. For the first time, the government has opened the path for people to take the first step towards reconciliation, beginning with the 1965 Tragedy. It is an unprecedented effort to fulfill a promise, made during Jokowi’s campaign to seek reconciliation for gross violations of human rights. May 98 was part of them.

Looking at the challenges that arises almost immediately after the national symposium on 1965 Tragedy, it is obvious that this is going to be a herculean effort.

Pak Jokowi’s scrawny figure reminds me of that tiny old lady, whom I never said “thank you for saving us” to. His courage, even though he’s no (son of) general, no blueblood or descendant of political dynasty, also reminds me of that old lady’s courage.

Can Presiden Joko Widodo save Indonesia from the bitterness of our past like the old lady saved us from that bitter mob?

The Jakarta Post, 20 May 2016.


The email I impulsively sent that day when my house was attacked was circulated around the world. Few days after the attack when we seek refuge in my cousins house, my inbox was filled with thousands of emails from perfect strangers from all over the world. They offered prayers, wellwishes and some even offered money for airfares to their countries & their places/houses to seek refuge or live in... Thousands and thousands more came on the following weeks and months... Never got to say thank you...

I know it's probably too late, but thank you... To little old lady, human barricade, Pak Lurah, Pak Ustadz, perfect strangers.... Thank you everyone wherever you are..

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