Sunday, May 14, 2006

Jakarta riots May 1998

The following appeared at

Jakarta Kid

As I was soothed by Canteloube and Puccini, I tried to come to terms with what was going on. Jakarta had seemed to be one of the world's safer cities; most kampung people were hospitable and did not tolerate theft; but now there were mobs on the loose. What had it felt like in Pompeii when the first tremors occurred?


That night the city was engulfed in rage and the sky turned red. I remember driving across town and finding Gatot Soebroto (this is one of the two main arteries of Jakarta) completely in the dark. No more neon lights and pretty faces on the billboard. It was dark from end to end except for random groups of guys burning things here and there.

A.M. Mora y Leon

I was somewhere outside Yogyakarta on this day eight years ago, within sight of Mount Merapi volcano. One of the greatest democratic revolutions in history was about to erupt but I didn't know it then.... those were the days of thousands of young student moving to defy the thuggish Soeharto regime all by themselves. I had been going to the first demonstrations in March, taking photographs, to see for myself. Something big was going to happen, but I did not know what or when. Would we get shot? Would we get caught? Would the students throw the tinpot out?


M., who had volunteered his services, has penned a few of his thoughts about the ten days or so spent in the Embassy compound:

I stared out of my hotel window watching the troop dispositions around the British Embassy. It was a surreal site; the road surface had been chewed up into curved and corrugated ruts by the passage of heavy tracked vehicles, there were barbed wire barriers everywhere, and an ominous lack of traffic on what is usually one of Jakarta's busiest thoroughfares. Troop carriers and armoured cars were parked at crazy angles at the road junctions. Kids were clambering onto and into the military vehicles, while soldiers lounged in the shade under the trees at the side of the pavement, sleeping or smoking their kretek cigarettes.

The Mandarin Hotel, just across the road from the Embassy, was general HQ for the hordes of journalists and camera crews who had descended on Jakarta. I called in there every morning for breakfast, picking my way over battered aluminium cases and coils of slithery black cables to snatch what food was left at the buffet. Journalists, I reflected, have exceedingly healthy appetites. Sadly, their appetite for getting in close to the street action didn't seem quite so keen. My impression, from the conversations going on around me, was that a lot of them were more concerned to find some local bigwig to posture in front of a camera and pontificate on what was happening, rather than get into the thick of the action and see it first hand.

I was based in the Embassy during those critical days, updating their web site information and helping to man the emergency phone service that had been set up to provide advice for British nationals throughout the country. Phones rang non-stop, anxious Embassy officials darted hither and thither with slips of paper and notepads, and you could smell the tension in the air. But in spite of the apparent chaos it was a well-organized and very efficiently run operation - which needs to be said, as there were completely unfounded criticisms levelled at the Embassy after the crisis.

The highlight of the second week was my escape from the Embassy. We'd been told it was still unsafe to venture outside the cordon around the place, and on no account were we to return to our homes. Sneaking out of the gate with a colleague, we drove through the barriers unchallenged and sped to our respective homes in south Jakarta. I had two aims: check that my cat was safe, then head for the local bars to get the gossip from my friends. The traffic was jammed solid as usual, shops and offices were open, life had returned to the streets. It was only later, chatting with friends over a few drinks, that the darker horrors of the previous couple of weeks came vividly to life from their eye-witness accounts.


We made it to Bank Universal's HQ ATM, one of only two in service in town. A long but patient queue as the machine was refilled. The bank itself was shut. So we've got enough cash for the duration (?).

A fleet of buses was parked outside the packed Malaysian Embassy but I only noted three cars in the Russian Embassy compound down the road.

Some shops are open, a few, belying the TV news of the city returning to 'normal'.

We hear tell of officials at the airport charging Rp.5 million instead of the official Rp.1 million for the exit tax (fiskal). There are also reports of cars being sold to pay the extortionists. I've got cash so it's a pity I don't drive.

I've put a couple of beers in the fridge for tonight's FA Cup Final.

A ring round. Two colleagues are heading off to Bali ~ and later for 'home'?

Another is heading off, with his Indonesian wife, for the happy hour at Hard Rock Café.

Most of us are settling in for a week's siege.