Indonesia: The Damaging Debate on Rapes of Ethnic Chinese Women

I. Introduction

Other Sections

Table of Contents
The Violence
The Rapes
Government Statements: From Condemnation to "Fabrication"
Ending Discrimination
Ending Violence Against the Ethnic Chinese

Reports that ethnic Chinese women were raped during riots in Jakarta in mid-May have generated an outpouring of rage from around the world and a furious debate inside Indonesia. Legislators in Taiwan and Hong Kong have threatened cut-offs of aid and expulsions of Indonesian migrant workers. Officials in Beijing have abandoned their stance that human rights questions are a domestic concern and have publicly and repeatedly condemned the rapes. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright raised the issue with the Indonesian finance minister in July.(1) Numerous websites have sprung up on the Internet to campaign against the rapes and demand international action.

Within Indonesia, the issue has pitted top military officers, who challenge the validity of the rape accounts, against Indonesian rights advocates and leading members of the ethnic Chinese community, who claim the assaults on women in mid-May were widespread, systematic, and organized. The fact that as of late August, not a single witness to a rape in mid-May could be persuaded to come forward and give testimony to a government fact-finding panel where anonymity was guaranteed has only fueled the debate. One side points to the lack of witnesses or reports to police as evidence of "fabrication" while the other maintains that the rape victims have either fled Jakarta or remain too terrified to testify, particularly when they or their families believe security forces were involved. In fact, there are many reasons that ethnic Chinese women might hesitate to file charges of rape, including the fact that ethnic Chinese in general in Indonesia have been routinely subjected to extortion by police.

Human Rights Watch believes that the more the debate focuses on the issue of whether or not rapes occurred, the less likely it is that serious investigations will be pursued to establish the extent of, and reasons behind, attacks on ethnic Chinese. In particular, concerns of victims of sexual violence that they will not be believed may have intensified because of the official denials that rape took place. There may well be problems with some of the data initially collected, and rights advocates probably need to exercise more than usual caution in ensuring the credibility of their sources. Rape and sexual violence against women in general can be difficult to document, even for experienced human rights investigators. But the government is not helping matters by alleging "fabrication." Instead it should be working to ensure a climate that is as sympathetic as possible; to develop a witness protection mechanism in which victims can feel wholly confident; and to work out a strategy for following up every lead to determine how and why any kind violence against the ethnic Chinese took place.

Before examining the claims and counterclaims regarding the rapes, it is important to note that the focus on rape has obscured several issues that need to be kept in view:

These developments need to be kept front and center. Regardless of how many rapes took place or how many witnesses can be found, the fact that unprecedented violence, including sexual assaults, against ethnic Chinese took place in May in which soldiers and police were involved is not disputed. A serious, competent fact-finding team appointed by the government that includes well-known human rights defenders as well as military personnel is investigating that violence now. How such violence can be prevented in the future, and how the social fabric of Indonesia can be restored so that persons of all ethnicities feel secure, should be the top priorities for all concerned.

Indonesia: The Damaging Debate on Rapes of Ethnic Chinese Women - Table of Contents