The 13 and 14 May 1998 , the riots occurred in Jakarta , capital of Indonesia . More riots took place in Surakarta ( Central Java ) on 14-15 May. Many shops belonging to Indonesians of Chinese origin have been attacked and looted. During these riots, more than 1,200 people were killed. Most were people trapped in the fire at the Mega Mall in the new town of Lippo Karawaci west of Jakarta. Among them, there were a large number of looters, come to enjoy the disorder caused by the attacks of stores.

These riots led to the resignation, on May 21, 1998, of President Soeharto , who came to power in 1966 in the aftermath of massacres that had left between 500,000 and 1 million dead, and has since been re-elected by a custom-made parliament .

Several testimonies, collected in particular by a team of the French television channel France 2 agree on the way these attacks and looting took place. The scenario was the same: a truck stops in front of a window. Down from ten to twenty men dressed identically, the cut shaves, in disciplined order. They start to attack the shop window. A crowd is formed. The group breaks the window and begins to extract merchandise, while inviting the crowd to do the same. It finally give in and indulges in looting. The group goes back in the truck and disappears.

Testimonies on the violence were collected by members of a team of investigators trained and led by Jesuit Father Sandyawan Sumardi 1 , who recorded 182 cases of mass rapes perpetrated by soldiers in civilian clothes as part of a campaign to terrorize Indonesians of Chinese origin. The army and the government tried to discredit him and intimidate him without success. The authorities were finally forced to promise an official investigation. Following this investigation, the government nevertheless declared not hold evidence of rape 2 .

Father Sandyawan had a hard time convincing the public of these abuses. Evidence was difficult to collect because victims of rape spoke only on condition of anonymity. Her task was not facilitated by fake photos of tortured Chinese women circulating on the Internet, prompting skepticism by some Indonesian personalities of Chinese origin about the victims’ statements.

Causes and circumstances

For months, many events were held in different cities of Indonesia at the initiative of students. The protest movement, especially among students, is beginning to gain momentum with clashes in Medan , the largest city in northern Sumatra in April 1998 between the students to police 3 . On May 8 in Yogyakarta , a university town in central Java , students demonstrate to demand the resignation of Soeharto. Clashes take place with the police. A student, Moses Gatutkaca, dies.

Main article: Asian economic crisis .

On Tuesday, May 12, 1998, there was a shootout at the Trisakti University in West Jakarta, occupied by the students, who protested in the context of a growing movement of anger at the misery created by the monetary, financial and economic crisis. which erupted in August 1997 with the fall of the Jakarta Stock Exchange and rupiah , the Indonesian currency. It traded at the rate of 2500 rupiah to 1 US dollar before the crisis. In January 1998 she had fallen to 17,000 rupiahs for 1 dollar.

Six students are killed in the Trisakti shooting. Police stationed in front of the university. But ballistic expertise has shown that the weapon belonged to the arsenal of the army.

The next day, May 13, riots broke out in front of the university. The rioters are not students. They try to get them out of the campus and follow them. Students refuse. The rioters will then attack neighborhood stores, whose owners are often of Chinese origin.

That day, President Soeharto goes on an official trip to Egypt.

The next day, May 14, around 10 am, a first fire is declared in a district of North Jakarta. About half an hour later, a second fire is declared, a little further south. Throughout the morning, at regular intervals, a new fire will occur, each time a little further south. The afternoon of Thursday, Jakarta sinks into a climate of violence. In the evening, General Wiranto, head of the armed forces, imposes a curfew.

Throughout Jakarta, the wildest rumors circulate. The most common of these rumors says that crowds of thousands of people are attacking neighborhoods, especially residential. In the neighborhoods, the inhabitants organize themselves. Barricades are mounted at the entrance of the access roads. Rounds are conducted at night.

Soeharto returns on May 16th.

On Monday, May 18, thousands of students go to parliament to occupy it. Opposition leaders led by Amien Rais, leader of the large Muslim organization Muhammadiyah , staged a monstrous demonstration on May 20. The night before, Lieutenant-General Prabowo Subianto , son-in-law of Soeharto, meets Amien and advises him not to hold this demonstration, planning a bloodbath. The event is canceled.

On the evening of May 20, several ministers resign and go to Soeharto to advise him to resign.

On Thursday, May 21, at 9 am, Soeharto solemnly announces his resignation as President of the Republic. His vice president, BJ Habibie , automatically becomes the new president.

On the night of May 22nd to 23rd, curious military maneuvers take place in Jakarta. It has been said that tanks of Kostrad  ( strategic reserves of the Indonesian army ), whose commander is Prabowo Subianto , were heading towards the parliament, still occupied by the students. They were reportedly arrested by armored marines , very popular since they refused to fire on the crowd during the riots.

Many points of these events are for now [when?] Still obscure. Some [Who?] Believe that factions of the military would have wanted to push for the declaration of the state of emergency to seize power.

The context

These riots are part of a long chain of violence that marks the last years of the Soeharto regime.

A particular incident will strike the spirits. In October 1995, a few hundred people gathered in front of a supermarket in the city of Purwakarta, about 100 km east of Jakarta. They came to protest against the treatment inflicted by the owner to a high school girl who, arriving at the cash desk to pay a chocolate bar, found her wallet empty. The girl then said that she would put the tablet back in its place. The owner had not heard that way and accusing the flying schoolgirl, forced her to wash the floor of the store and cleaning toilets, while insulting to other customers 4 . This demonstration had quickly degenerated into attacks and looting of shops run by Indonesians of Chinese origin.

The violence of the end of the regime will not only target the Chinese, but also Christians. A Catholic association estimates that during the whole period of this regime, 535 churches were damaged or burned by the crowd, whereas during the period of the former president Soekarno this number had been only 4.

After the resignation of Soeharto, Indonesia will experience other interethnic and interreligious violence, not to mention the mysterious killing of hundreds of Muslim religious leaders in East Java 5 , stronghold of the great Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama led by Abdurrahman Wahid , and the violence that will follow the massive East Timorese vote for independence in August 1999.

But, in addition to the East Timor referendum, 1999 will also be the year of the first democratic elections since 1955.


  1. ↑ Business Week Online , June 14, 1999: “Father Sandyawan Sumardi, Jesuit, Investigator, Indonesia”
  2. ↑, August 29, 1998: “Anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia continues”
  3. ↑, April 29, 1998: “Indonesian students, Police Clash in 6-hour melee”
  4. ↑ Kompas , November 2, 1995: “Unjuk Rasa di Purwakarta” (demonstration in Purwakarta)
  5. ↑ Asiaweek , November 6, 1998: “Death’s long shadow: a mysterious killing spree troubles the nation”