Refugee claimants streaming through Rico Rey Hipolito’s law office in downtown Vancouver offer horrendous stories. Some tell of cheating death as they fled war, while others speak of terrible political persecution. Then there is the pretty, brown-eyed, dark-haired teenager. In May, with the Indonesian economy teetering on the edge of collapse, riots erupted. During the violence, the Chinese minority was singled out. Their businesses and homes were torched and, according to human rights groups, 170 women may have been systematically raped by marauding gangs.
Fearing a similar fate on her return to Indonesia, the girl, who was attending school in Canada and is the daughter of a wealthy Indonesian Chinese family, wanted to stay.
“There was a great deal of concern,” says Rey Hipólito. “Now, she is waiting to see what happens in Jakarta.”
The teenager in Vancouver is not the only one watching and waiting—so far this year nearly 80 Indonesians have sought refugee status in Canada. In September, Citizenship and Immigration Canada sent an official to Jakarta to process visas, and consultants claim their seminars advising Indonesians on how to obtain Canadian citizenship have been overbooked. Last week, an Indonesian government-appointed commission investigating the alleged rapes failed to meet its deadline to table its report—evidently because the findings are expected to blame the military for the outrages. Resentment among soldiers, local analysts fear, could help trigger another pogrom against the Chinese.
Last week, too, students in Jakarta mounted the largest anti-government demonstration yet under President B. J. Habibie, who took over in May. And with the economy continuing to erode and violence against other ethnic groups flaring, many Chinese are growing more worried by the day. Raymond Chan, secretary of state for the Asia-Pacific region, who toured the country in October and met with Habibie, says few Indonesian officials are ready to admit that the rapes even took place. “The government is very defensive,” says Chan. “They believe the reputation of the country has been tarnished.” Indonesians who made it out to Canada following the riots are often too frightened to return. One man in Toronto, who feared retaliation if he gave his name, said he fled with his wife, two children and his mother, just as the protesters descended on his neighborhood. “They are still very scared,” adds a relative. “They would have been trapped if they had stayed behind.” Another Indonesian who fled to
Toronto was nervously planning to return to Jakarta last week. “It’s scary,” he admits. “It is very unstable right now.”
Indonesia plunged into racial violence following a financial storm that hit the region in mid-1997, when governments could no longer meet payments on their foreign debt. During his 32-year rule, former Indonesian president Suharto used the iron fist of the military to hold the ethnically diverse country of 202 million together. Despite occasional racial outbursts, the Chinese largely thrived under his protection. Analysts estimate that although they account for only about four per cent of the population, they control more than 70 per cent of private wealth. Suharto, who resigned in the face of mounting protests, left the Chinese defenceless. Protesters, blaming the wealthy minority for the economic bust, burnt and looted their businesses. According to human rights activists, at least 168 women, perhaps more, were systematically raped during the riots. The reports of the atrocities outraged Chinese communities around the world. This week, Chan is due to meet with Chinese-Canadian leaders in Toronto to discuss the rapes. “It’s a very dangerous situation,” says S. C. Wen, president of Canadians Concerned about Ethnic Violence in Indonesia.
The looming publication of the report on the rapes is adding to the tension. On the evening of Oct. 9, Marthadinata Haryono, a 17-yearold student who helped counsel rape victims, was stabbed and almost decapitated in a savage murder that shook human rights workers. The girl’s mother and sister had also been working with the nongovernment counselling agency, which has been documenting the rapes as well. Marthadinata and her mother had been expected to travel this month to the United States to testify before a human rights group about the assaults.
While pledging to investigate, the Indonesian government has claimed that many of the rape stories were fabricated to incite racial tensions. But Chan, who plans to raise the issue with his Indonesian counterparts at the mid-November Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, says the attacks were well organized. “There is no doubt that the rapes occurred,” says Chan bluntly. “I met families and doctors who looked after the rape victims.”
Chan also wants to bring Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Indonesia’s Habibie together to discuss the issue. There would be some irony—as well as public relations value—for Chrétien in such a meeting. Chrétien, of course, is under fire for allegedly authorizing tough tactics by the RCMP against demonstrators at last year’s APEC gathering in Vancouver—where many carried signs denouncing Suharto’s record on human rights. A spokesman for the Prime Minister said a meeting has not been set up, but may yet be arranged. “Human rights,” insists Chan, “will be a very important part of the dialogue.”
The support of Chan and other international observers is considered crucial as the rape victims come forward only slowly. The government’s investigators have confirmed some cases, but nowhere near the number claimed by activists. One incident involved a woman and her 12-year-old daughter who were raped side by side in their home by a group of men. When the woman’s husband intervened, she told investigators, the attackers hanged him. Another reported incident involved a nine-year-old girl who was so badly mutilated during the rape that she later died in hospital.
The most widely publicized and moving allegation—translated from Chinese, distributed on the Internet and published as fact in several countries, including Britain and Australia—has never been confirmed. It is apparently a first-person account by an 18-year-old woman named Vivian. She triggered international outrage by claiming that her Muslim attackers shouted “Allahu Akba f (Arabic for “God is
great”) while raping Chinese women—who are largely Christian or Buddhist—in her apartment block. On the evening of the attack, she maintains, a gang entered the building. As they approached, methodically smashing open apartment doors, she says: “We could hear girls screaming, ‘Mommy mommy, it hurts.’ ”
The mob eventually caught Vivian and her younger sister, Fenny. “In the end, five people assaulted Fenny,” she recalls. “One man grabbed a knife and stabbed her in the stomach over and over.” Then, they turned on Vivian. “I passed out,” she says, “and when I became conscious, I realized I had no clothes on.” After spending four days in the hospital, Vivian returned home, to be told Fenny had died. “Almost every hour my mother and I cry over these happenings. I can never forget” Problem is, the source of the Vivian account has never been traced, and some critics believe it is fraudulent. When Maclean’s visited the Mitra Bahari apartment block in north Jakarta, where many of the rapes—including Vivian’s—are alleged to have taken place, the metal door handles on the fire escape, where looters forced their way in, were still broken and twisted. Kenneth Gales, a British biologist who lives in Mitra Bahari, told Maclean’s he had to flee the building. “I thought they were going to kill us,” said Gales, who has a part-Chinese stepson. ‘We could hear the doors being kicked in one by one.” But when he returned and spoke to everyone in the building he could, he found no evidence that rapes had occurred. Still, he admits that many of the potential victims who lived in the building fled and have not returned.
That experience dramatizes the difficulties in the investigations. Even the Jesuit priest, Father Sandyawan Sumardi, who first reported that 168 women were raped during the three days of riots—including 20 who died—has begun rechecking his figures. But Sumardi, known for his work with street children, rejects critics who say the real numbers should be substantially lower. He points to reports of more cases in the troubled outlying regions of Aceh, East Timor and Irian Jaya, where the military is especially dominant. “Mass rape cases there have not been properly revealed,” he says.
Nor do many Chinese feel reassured. As she leans on sacks of rice piled in her stall in west Jakarta, a 36-year-old Chinese trader named Lina is clearly apprehensive. Recently, when a cheap-rice promotion she had staged on a truck outside her shop appeared to be turning chaotic, she fled inside the store. “I immediately shut my shop door,” she said. “I knew it could turn against me.”
Despite the hatred towards the Chinese, the Indonesians desperately need them to help rebuild their tattered economy. More than 80 million Indonesians are now living below the poverty line, up from 22 million in 1996. The figure could reach 140 million over the next year—two out of every three people. But to many wealthy Chinese, that is a recipe for social explosion. “Indonesia is a hot spot,” says Rey Hipólito, the immigration lawyer. “The Chinese do not feel safe.” Many will not feel secure until they have found a haven abroad.
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