Around this time twelve years ago, when I was the main anchor on ‘Seputar Indonesia’ the prime time news bulletin of Indonesia’s private television RCTI, I read the news wearing a black band around my upper arm. It was barely visible as I was wearing a dark coloured blazer, however it was obvious enough to get the attention of the Director General for Radio and Television at the Ministry of Information at that time, who rebuked me, albeit gently as he too was a journalist, that as a professional I should refrain from taking sides and remain objective when conveying news on social conflicts.
On May 12, 1998, four students from Trisakti University were shot dead while staging demonstrations demanding the ouster of then President Soeharto. I told the Director General that the only side I was taking was with the truth and the truth was that four innocent lives were lost, killed by armed men. At that time the public responded by wearing black armbands as a sign of mourning. There was no other side of the story to cover. Until now, the shooting of the Trisakti students remained unsolved and the perpetrators never brought to trial.
RCTI then was owned by one of Soeharto’s sons and the Ministry of Information in those days had a habit of poking their noses into every piece of news story we aired that was deemed sensitive to the government. For us to air anti-Soeharto demonstrations were clearly a problem. The Director General had the bright idea of creating a TV ‘pool’ that would at least control the types of newscasts that the country’s private TV stations were airing during those troubled times, including ruling on whether I was allowed to wear an armband or not.
The TV ‘pool’ idea never got off the ground as events quickly spiralled out of control. I remembered standing outside the office wondering about the sudden appearance of thick black smoke not far from where we in West Jakarta. News came that the petrol pump station in the area had been set on fire and there was some sort of commotion. Then there were more smokes in different parts of the city.
My sister, in her car on her way home in east Jakarta, called me from her cell phone rather frantically. In front of her, she said, there was a truck full of young men who got off the vehicle and for no apparent reason started to set fire to a ‘mikrolet’ after telling the people to get out.
At the office we heard that people were setting fire to a supermarket and the BCA bank nearby. Across the street from where we were smokes were rising as shops were being torched. A band of rioters were torching the area and they were coming our way. We bolted the front gates, stayed indoors and switched the lights off. My boss went around with a gun in his hand just in case somebody climbed the gates.
Nobody climbed the gates, but it was only after midnight that we braved ourselves to venture out. Those with cars decided to leave in a convoy. In the main street outside of our office the scene was like a war zone. Remnants of charred vehicles littered the road that was eerily quiet.
The next day my cameraman and I roamed the streets on the back of a motorbike. We drove on toll roads that were empty and unmanned while on either sides of the road shops burned and people looted. There was no single policeman in sight. People stayed home while offices remained shut.
When I left home in the morning, the area where I lived in the south was relatively quiet and untouched. By the time I came back, the local supermarket and in the nearby shopping mall were in flames. My maid came back with a bag full of stuff she took from the shops. I was appalled. Everyone was doing the same thing, she explained. But how were the shops set on fire? There were talks of jerry cans full of gasoline deposited near the supermarkets. And then the bunch of young men came. When the shops were ablaze the doors were thrown open and almost everybody became a thief, helping themselves to the goods.
The scene was repeated across the city. Shops and supermarkets were burned, looted and gutted. Many died trapped in the fire. Chinatown area was consumed in flames and unleashed brutality. There were horror stories of rapes. My friend of Chinese descent who lived in the area sent her parents away to Australia where they continue to live until now.
My driver wore a Muslim cap and hung prayer beads on the rear view mirror. In residential areas people take to hanging prayer mats on their fence and writing Arabic letters on the doors.
For a couple of days Jakarta was gripped in chaos that on retrospective was highly organized. The stories we exchanged were similar in nature. It started with a truckload of men coming from nowhere and setting things on fire. Then they left, allowing the basest part of human nature to take over and finish the job of destroying and looting. And during those days, not a single man in uniform was in sight.
But then some parts of Jakarta were strangely untouched. We drove around Pondok Indah. It was as if we were in another world. The streets were almost peaceful. Not a single house, shop or bank was damaged. Somehow the troublemakers thoughtfully kept away from the area.
The riots stopped as abruptly as they started. Something happened during those dark, traumatic days that this country still has not managed to shed light on. Then it was shrouded in mystery. Now, lost in the fog of amnesia.