JAKARTA (Reuters) - A new Indonesian film puts the spotlight on the sensitive issues of racism and rape involving the minority Chinese community during the bloody riots that led to the downfall of former President Suharto 10 years ago.
At one level, the movie “May” is a simple story about a fictional Chinese-Indonesian woman raped during the May 1998 riots when more than 1,000 people were killed in Jakarta.
Most who died were trapped in burning buildings, as mobs rampaged through the streets focusing attacks on Chinese houses and shops.
But the film also explores the broader human tragedy behind the riots that broke out during the height of the Asian financial crisis.
“It is a reflection of the 1998 incident. We made the movie not only to remind people, but (because) we want this incident to never happen again,” said Viva Westi, the film’s director, adding that not only Chinese but everyone was the victim of the riots.
Ten years on, rights groups say people who lost family and homes are still waiting for justice while the issue of rape has never been dealt with because of the silence of the victims and the reluctance of the public to acknowledge any sexual abuse.
Thousands of Chinese Indonesians fled the country during the riots, which brought to a head years of economic and social tensions between indigenous Indonesians, called pribumi, and the ethnic Chinese.
Aside from ethnic differences, most pribumi are Muslims and most Indonesian Chinese are not, and there was also resentment over what many other Indonesians saw as disproportionate economic influence by the Chinese.
An independent team set up to investigate the riots found that 85 women, mostly ethnic Chinese, were sexually assaulted, but authorities dropped the inquiry, citing lack of evidence.
“It (the movie) is about humanity. It’s about how this event impacts the lives of individuals. But it’s also political. We made this movie because many of the problems are still unsolved,” said Ade Kusumaningrum, the film’s publicist.
“We cannot re-enact the riots because every person has a different interpretation. There is no simple truth ... But we wanted to portray the main tragedy from a woman’s perspective.”
In a break from the usual crop of horror and teen films in Indonesia, Westi’s movie is a rare and sensitive look at the riots through the eyes of May, the Chinese-Indonesian woman, who was separated from her boyfriend and mother in the riots.
May flees to Malaysia and builds a new life as a pub singer, but 10 years on she is still traumatized by the events that left her pregnant and filled with anger toward her boyfriend, Antares, believing her fate would have been different had he rescued her.
Apart from dealing with May’s crisis after reuniting with Antares, the movie also delves into the guilt felt by many indigenous Indonesians at the fate of the Chinese minority.
In the film, a laundryman, Gandang, struggles to deal with his success at the expense of May’s mother, who sold her land to him for a plane ticket to escape the riots.
“The character of Gandang is the analogy of the Indonesian government. He never did anything for 10 years, but he enjoyed everything without explaining what really happened,” she said.
Although many Chinese who fled during the riots have returned in recent years and the community has made progress in some areas, deep scars remain and it is still trying to find its exact place in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Under the autocratic rule of Suharto, ethnic Chinese were initially major targets of mass killings of alleged communists and communist sympathizers, and subsequently their culture and language were severely restricted.
Even so, the community, which represents only about 3 percent of Indonesia’s population, had a strong influence over big swathes of the economy, and some of the most wealthy had close links to Suharto.
Westi says she plans to go to the international circuit with her movie which only ran in the cinema in Jakarta for a week before it was edged out by big Hollywood releases such as “Sex and the City” and “Kung Fu Panda.”
The National Commission on Human Rights said the movie was an important reminder of a past many may have forgotten or are reluctant to accept.
“Raising the facts of May 1998 is necessary, to tell the public that it has indeed happened and that women were victims,” said Hesti Armi Wulan, deputy chief for external relations.
“The general public must understand the bitterness of rape victims, because the trauma will never stop.”
Editing by Ed Davies and Jerry Norton