Church play revives horrors of anti-Suharto riots

Drama about rape of Chinese woman aims to send warning to Indonesians about harmful affects of sectarianism
Church play revives horrors of anti-Suharto riots

An Indonesian drama about the raping of Chinese women during the anti-Suharto riots in May 1998 looks to remind people that they should not forget one of the darkest episodes in the country’s history. (Photo by Konradus Epa/ucanews)

The anti-Suharto riots in May 1998 were a dark chapter in Indonesia’s history in which at least 1,200 people lost their lives.

Although they ended the rule of Suharto — a dictator who had brought about economic hardship during his 31 years in power — and ushered in a new democratic era, the violence was very much racial in nature with the ethnic Chinese community the main target.

Anti Chinese sentiment runs deep in Indonesia where there is an underlying belief that the Chinese community there remain loyal to China.

Twenty-one years on, the atrocities committed during that time, which also included the rape of at least 168 women, according to reports, are fading into history.

The Indonesian Church, however, says these events should not be forgotten and should serve as a reminder of how evil sectarianism is.

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One such reminder came from Jakarta Archdiocese in association with St. Carolus Hospital in the form of a Church-sponsored play staged recently at the city’s Ciputra Artpreneur center.

The play “Kemuning — The Grieving Bride” tells the story of an ethnic Chinese woman called Mawar who is raped after her family is brutally murdered during the May 12-13 riots in Jakarta in 1998.  

She falls pregnant as a result of the rape and becomes suicidal, wanting to kill not only herself but also the baby inside her.

The story goes on to tell of her being turned back from suicide by a priest and staff at St. Carolus Hospital, having the child — who she calls Kemuning — and going to the U.S. to start a new life, like many other rape victims did after the violence.

The three-hour production was watched by people from all religious backgrounds, some of which were reduced to tears as the story unfolded. 

Remember history

Father Matheus Harry Sulistyo, the director, said the aim of the play was to remind people not to forget what happened during those turbulent events. 

“This drama was meant to raise people’s awareness so that they can prevent a similar tragedy from happening in the future,” the priest told ucanews.com.

Many of the crimes and abuses committed then remain unresolved, despite many investigations having been carried out.

According to Father Sulistyo, who also heads Jakarta Archdiocese’s Social Communication Commission, the drama encapsulated the three pillars of the Catholic hospital: the priests, nuns, and doctors.

The play was also part of efforts to support the mission of St. Carolus Hospital, which marks its centenary this year.

“It teaches people through the main characters — Mawar and Kemuning — that women can survive despite the dire problems they face,” he said.

Archbishop Ignatius Suharyo of Jakarta also said that the drama depicts the Christian values implemented by the Catholic hospital.

“It encourages us to be individuals who can do good for other people,” the prelate said.

A fact-finding team established by the government and National Human Rights Commission to look into the 1998 violence, including the rape cases, later reported its findings to the U.N.

Ita F. Nadia, an activist and a member of the fact-finding team, said gang rapes that occurred were racially motivated.

Abusing the bodies of Chinese women was the easiest way to create terror among their community.

She said it was well orchestrated and done by a group of people set up to carry out the task.

According to Nadia — who also heads Kalyanamitra, a women’s organization — said apart from Jakarta, rapes also took place in other cities in Java and Sumatra.

Multi-faith collaboration

The multi-faith cast of the play said they hoped the drama provided a powerful message.

Yatty Surahman, 61, a Christian actress who portrayed a nun, said she was persuaded to take part because such harrowing events and the consequences they lead to should not be swept aside.

“This drama has a good mission to help other people,” she said.

Widya Wijaya, a Buddhist, said the play teaches that respect for others is of primary importance in how human beings interact.

“Everyone should respect each other as humans, and not have vengeful thoughts,” she told ucanews.com.

Widi Dwinanda, 31, a Muslim artist said young people need to draw a useful lesson from the play. 

“It raises people’s awareness, particularly among the young generation that there is a dark history to our country,” she said.

“We must not fall into the same trap,” she said.

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