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Home > General > Andre Vltchek: Racism and Sexual Violence in Indonesia

Andre Vltchek: Racism and Sexual Violence in Indonesia

10 May 2013

print version of this article print version - Weekend Edition May 10-12, 2013

Where Fear Stalks the Streets:
Racism and Sexual Violence in Indonesia


My good friend, a Chinese Indonesian lady, recently got grabbed and assaulted, in the middle of Jakarta, in broad daylight.

When it happened, I was in Japan and we exchanged several messages, and emails. This was not the first time such a thing had happened to her and she felt humiliated, defeated and thoroughly vulnerable.

“I wish I would be born as someone else – not as a Chinese. I wish I would look like everyone else”, she wrote.

I spent half a day convincing her that there was nothing wrong with being Chinese, or belonging to any other ethnic group. It was Indonesia that had failed her; the country that, since 1965, performed three genocides fully backed by the West, the country, which has been using sexual violence in order to paralyze its own population with fear.

I asked my friend to write, to give me 3 stories, one of her own, and two of others. I asked her for three simple examples. “I will put them into context”, I promised.

She said ‘yes’ and she delivered. And I combined their simple but symbolic stories with a much bigger and terrible story that has never been told: one with unimaginable sexual violence that Indonesian women have had to suffer since 1965.

This story was always taboo here, but finally, I realized it has to be told, without doublespeak and in plain language.

* * *

First, Anna told me her own, her recent account.

My office is located on Jalan Wijaya. There are several small cafes and restaurants, ‘warung’, around that area, but this time we went to one that is some ten minutes away.

Never before had I experienced anything exceptionally ‘bad’, walking around the area. Of course some young men and schoolboys at the side of the road were often teasing me verbally, but I haven’t really paid much attention to that, because I have often been teased in other parts of the city, even when walking from Lebak Bulus Terminal to my place.

In fact, what Anna considers ‘normal teasing’ was being screamed at with words like: “Where are you going, beautiful? Are you alone?” And sometimes: “Hey white one”. There was also rude mimicking of the Chinese language. And it was not only boys who were doing it, but also the drivers at the bus terminal; those who were actually mocking Chinese language all the time, whenever they would spot her.

That day I was walking slightly off the sidewalk and suddenly some schoolboys riding their bikes, came close and grabbed my behind, squeezing it.

Then they rode away, looking back to me; at me, laughing and giving me that victorious look; full of pride that they had managed to humiliate me.

I was so shocked because I really didn’t see it coming, I didn’t expect it.

I was stunned for several minutes, trying to come to terms with what had just happened.

But conditioned by living her entire life in Indonesia, Anna did not get angry with the attackers, she did not run to the police station (‘They would harass me there, or worse’, she explained to me). Instead she felt shame because of her own identity:

When I recovered a bit, my first feeling was, “I hate my Chinese look… If only I were not Chinese, I wouldn’t look different from the majority. If only I had darker skin and wider eyes, they wouldn’t feel the desire to do such things to me.”

There were other people, women and men, walking down the road, why not them? Why me?

My two friends tried to calm me down, and there was really not much to do other than just ‘let it be’. Or just be more careful next time.

When I returned to my office, I was asked: “Are you okay?” Then told: “Be strong…” and others were just trying to look concerned but also giving me that, “Thank God I’m not Chinese” look.

I was so ashamed and sad. I also thought, “What can I do? This is Indonesia. This is like my inevitable fate as a Chinese person living in this country. If this didn’t happen now, it would happen some other time.”

And frankly, when you offered to write about this, I had my doubts, because I wasn’t even sure whether it would be okay to talk about such things. It seems to be so ‘biasa saja’ for everybody here, such a ‘usual thing’.

From the beginning, we are shaped to just accept everything that comes. As if there’s nothing we can do, as if it is our inevitable fate; a fate that we are not even allowed defining.

* * *

Anna is not the real name of my friend. Almost none of the Indonesian victims of harassment, molestation, even rape, would ever dare to identify themselves.

After all, Indonesia is the country where sexual terror against women has been something entirely usual, biasa, since the days of the Western-backed coup of 1965.

Daughters who have been molested do not confide in their parents; female victims who become targets of rape do not report the crime to the police, which itself is notorious for molesting, harassing and raping women.

In Indonesia, to be violated is to become ‘kotor’, dirty. Victims are taught not to feel any outrage. Instead they feel shame; they are used to hiding instead of coming forward and fighting for themselves and for the others. There are some exceptions, but extremely few.

There are no mass movements and protests of outraged women as in India. There are no powerful films exposing sexual violence, like the brilliant recent award-winning Egyptian one called “Cairo 678”.

The victims of the 1965 genocide, victims of the East Timor genocide, victims of the on-going Papua genocide; victims of racism and religious discrimination, victims of sexual violence; all those victims have been successfully frightened into silence.

In my recent book on Indonesia: “Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto, 2012), I argue:

Fear is a very powerful force in Indonesia. There are many different types of fear. Some are related to the past, and to violence, and others to corruption. There is the fear of being exposed, of being punished, and of losing face. There is the fear of admitting to the world one’s victimhood. There is the fear of belonging to a minority – racial, ethnic or religious – as in Indonesia the majority rules no matter what, often reasserting its dominance by brutalizing and oppressing minorities.

* * *

The gruesomeness of the crimes against women in Indonesia is on the same level as those in war-torn African countries like DR Congo.

But one would never guess it from reading Indonesian newspapers or from talking to the locals, as ‘the secret’ is very well hidden. In the West, for instance, Indonesia is relentlessly propagated as a ‘genuine example, or a successful transformation to democracy’, and a generally ‘tolerant’ society. VltchekpointAnd nobody dares to challenge such myths.

That is because Indonesia is fully subservient to Western geo-political and economic interests, ever since 1965, when its corrupt officers led by Suharto, committed treason and began murdering their own citizens.

In her famous speech in Beijing in 1995, Hillary Clinton declared: “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.”

Later, in 2009, while visiting Indonesia in her role as the US Secretary of State, she announced: “As I travel around the world over the next years, I will be saying to people: if you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can co-exist, go to Indonesia.”

Ms. Clinton was speaking about the country of Ms. Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, National Coordinator of LBH-APIK (Indonesian Association of Legal Aid Societies for Women), and former house member from the National Awakening Party (PKB). And Ms. Nur spoke to me, one day in 2011, in her house in Jakarta, about her Indonesia:

“Millions of women in Indonesia are genitally mutilated. For cultural, and religious reasons. I was one of them… And my sister was genitally mutilated and I witnessed it. When they mutilated my sister – it was in 1960 – I was only 5 years old… There was blood all around; blood and screams.

And my daughter had to experience the same. My family forced me. And I didn’t know… she was born in 1990 before I learned that genital mutilation is a human rights issue. I refused to put her through this, but they kept chasing me, pushing me: ‘Why, why, why not?! It is sin and shame on the entire family not to do it!’ At the end, when she was 6 months old, I took her to the hospital in Jakarta where they did it to her… I didn’t see the act, because they took her away. I sat outside and cried and cried. I felt all my hair was standing up. And I heard my baby screaming and then they brought her back to me and there was blood everywhere.”

Surely, a fine example of women’s and human rights, Ms. Clinton!

* * *

In and after 1965, rape and sexual torture were used in the most beastly ways. Many women belonging to left-wing organizations, including Gerwani, had their breasts and genitals ‘amputated’. That was, biasa, or ‘normal’, too.

The military, religious cadres, and also millions of ‘common Indonesian citizens’ took part in the most appalling acts. Entire myths justifying their participation in the slaughter and rapes were created and perfected. Between 800,000 and 3 million people: leftists, PKI, intellectuals, teachers, atheists, and members of Chinese minority, had been systematically liquidated.

All the legends were thoroughly grotesque, but they served as foundations for the twisted logic, from which post-1965 Indonesia has been constructed.

Almost all the myths had a sexual undertone, like those that spoke of wild orgies thrown by PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia) and its women’s organization Gerwani. It was said that women belonging to the left castrated Indonesian army generals. Such myths were deliberately created in order to justify the gruesome sexual violence that followed.

Ms. Sudjinah, a former member of Gerwani, described some of the violence that came as ‘reprisal’ after 1965, in her book ‘Terempas Gelombang Pasang’ (Crashed by tidal wave, 2003):

[We arrived] at a former Chinese school which appeared to have been converted into a detention and interrogation center. As soon as I arrived, I suddenly understood, why this building which had once been a place for children’s learning was called the ‘Devil’s House’ by the detainees… I was put into a small cell where the walls were stained with blood. I could hear cries and moans coming from the interrogation room. My friend Lami [Sulami] was interrogated first, and then it was my turn… ‘Oi, open your mouth or else…’ [Said the interrogator] and they hit me with long sticks of rattan all over my body. There were about eight of these ‘devils’ dressed in green and yellow-striped shirts who attacked my body with blows and curses. I shut my eyes as I felt the blows all over my naked body; my stomach, chest, face and arms. I could feel the blood oozing from my mouth. When I opened my eyes, I could see others who had already been beaten lying on the floor, some of them unconscious… There were more than thirty women and girls in that place; among them, young Chinese girls…one was still unconscious. She had been interrogated. When she had refused to answer any questions, they had electrocuted her.

According to the research done by Harvard University and Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security (Kai Thaler, Foreshadowing Future Slaughter: From the Indonesian Killings of 1965 –1966 to the1974 –1999 Genocide in East Timor):

Women were singled out for especially brutal treatment. The myth of Gerwani members mutilating and killing the generals during the G-30-S incident enraged the population. “Communist” women were thus seen as savage monsters that were guilty not only of the alleged crimes against the generals, but, in the words of Suharto, whose “sadistic practices . . . had destroyed the identity of Indonesian women.”

Some of the anti-Communist slogans used were “‘Gerwani Tjabol’ (Gerwani Whores), ‘Gantung Gerwani’ (Hang Gerwani) and ‘Ganjang Gerwani’ (Crush Gerwani).” In Bali, thousands of women were rounded up and taken to government offices to have their genitals examined for signs of sexual activity, which, it was claimed, could identify them as Gerwani members; these searches were frequently accompanied by rape. In a gendered analysis of the Killings, Saskia Wieringa found that in Indonesia’s sexually repressed society, the alleged brazen sexual transgressions of the Gerwani women were both arousing and infuriating to the young, often religious, men who comprised the majority of the killers. The forms that violence against women took bear out this argument. A document received by the human rights group, Tapol is particularly illuminating: a female PKI member was ordered to strip and had her “body and honor” burned before she was hacked to death; a newlywed Gerwani member was raped multiple times by an Ansor group and then was “slit open from her breasts to her vulva”; a woman nine months pregnant, was killed, then had her stomach cut open and her child butchered; another Gerwani leader was impaled through her vagina with a sharpened bamboo pole. These extremes of violence, reflect the dehumanization caused by the Gerwani myth, and also a reassertion of male power and control over female sexuality, eliminating those who would challenge it.

The Regime was by then using entire military battalions to rape women in the villages and towns of East Timor, during the genocidal occupation. One of the commanders was Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a Suharto’s high-ranking officer, now President of Indonesia.

In those days, I managed to smuggle myself into East Timor, on several occasions. In places like Ermera, the Indonesian military was known to arrive unexpected, arrest all men and then rape all females, from babies to grandmothers in their 80’s. Once my work to expose the horror of occupation was discovered, I got detained and tortured, and my films confiscated.

All this had not been discussed and it has not been discussed until now. The details of the torturing and slaughtering women by Indonesian troops were so sadistic, so elaborate and gruesome, that I do not dare to include them, even in this report. The issues were made ‘taboo’ under Suharto, and they remain ‘taboo’ in ‘democratic’ Indonesia.

Then there were the rapes of Chinese women, in brought daylight, during those ‘heroic’ days of looting and mayhem that helped to bring the Western-backed dictator Suharto down, but allowed the pro-Western regime and its core to survive, and even to strengthen itself.

Wherever there are ‘riots’ in Indonesia, there are rapes, as I documented in the city of Solo in 1998. There, hundreds of Chinese women, most of them humble shopkeepers and their daughters, were ravished by a mad and bloodthirsty crowd, consisting of racist bigots, police standing by and watching idly.

There is plenty of revolting and ongoing sexual violence in Papua, which has already lost between 100,000 and 500,000 people in the ongoing slaughter, which resembles yet another Indonesian-style genocide. There, the members of the Indonesian military are periodically raping women, but are also kidnapping small children and holding them as virtual sexual slaves.

In October 2004, the then Director of Education of PNG, Sir Peter Baki, explained to me, the plight of many Papuan children in the occupied territory:

“Our inspectors who work with the children were repeatedly told: Indonesian troops come regularly to remote villages in Papua. When they see girls they like, they detain them. Families are sent away and the soldiers hold the girls until they have forced sex with them. Then the girls are told to remain silent; otherwise the army will destroy the whole village. It’s that simple: if the girls try to press charges and identify soldiers who raped them, relatives could be killed and the entire village could be destroyed…”

Our conversation took place in Nandi, Fiji, where Mr. Baki was attending a UN-sponsored meeting. He approached me, asking for help to ‘save Papuan children’, providing grisly details of girls, as young as 9, crossing the border to PNG, escaping from occupied Papua with their genitals and nipples mutilated or burned by cigarettes.
[. . .]