How the Deaths of Four Students Changed Indonesia Forever

Trisakti University students clash with police during riots in May 1998.

Source Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Indonesia

Why you should care

Because these young men inspired real political change when none seemed possible.

Indonesia took a final step in its 20-year process toward democratization last month when some 193 million Indonesians cast their vote for president and members of Parliament. This, the world’s largest one-day election, came 21 years after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship, which was sparked by the violent deaths of four young men protesting the regime from their campus in West Jakarta.

Heri Hertanto wasn’t known around the Trisakti University campus in West Jakarta as an activist. The 21-year-old engineering student, like thousands of students across the country, had just come to check out the demonstrations of the growing student movement on May 12, 1998. But he and three other students would leave school that day in body bags.

Elang Mulia Lesmana, 20, was a joker, a fun guy to be around. While his friends made demands of the government, he made a sign reading: “Lower the price of photocopies and perfume!” Hafidin Royan, 22, hung toward the back of the demonstrations, never on the front lines, and he was shot through the head. Hendriawan Sie, 20, was on campus when he was shot in the neck. The young men’s violent deaths sparked chaos across the capital, and soon the country. Before the month was out, whole neighborhoods would be destroyed, the death count would push past a thousand and Suharto, Indonesia’s long-ruling dictator, would resign. The four young men would be remembered as Pahlawan Reformasi — heroes of the reform.

Jakarta riot 14 may 1998

In the aftermath of the shooting, riots broke out throughout Indonesia.

Source Creative Commons

Student demonstrations had sprung up on campuses around the archipelago since 1988. By 1997 the Asian financial crisis was ravaging the region and the student movement was rising in prominence. Indonesia was badly hit, with the rupiah fallen to historic lows. Dissatisfaction with the president and his New Order government grew. Suharto, a former military general, had seized power in the 1960s and governed decades of relative stability that was rapidly declining. The period also saw Suharto help himself to an estimated $13 to $35 billion over the three decades, leading watchdog Transparency International to label him modern history’s most corrupt leader. 

Students at Trisakti and across the country called for the president to resign. The movement was growing quickly, and a police and military policy was introduced to keep the movement confined to campuses. Students could say and do as they pleased — but only within the confines of their campuses. Any efforts to march or gather in public would be stopped. 

 

“There was a consistent growth of large-scale — intercity and interisland — student political movement against the New Order government from 1988, culminating in 1998,” says Ariel Heryanto, a leading researcher in Indonesian student movements and the director of the Monash Herb Feith Indonesian Engagement Centre at Monash University, Australia. While Trisakti University is in the capital, the movement hadn’t been limited to urban areas. In fact, the movement’s heart was outside the usual protest centers like cities and elite campuses, Heryanto says. Instead, it stemmed from grassroots efforts led by students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Nonetheless, universities saw plenty of demonstrations. At Trisakti, 6,000 students and faculty gathered that May morning for a 3 1/2-mile march from campus. They barely got started: Riot police stopped the crowd from going farther than a few yards from campus, turning the march into a sit-in. A tense standoff between the students and police and military continued for hours. By late afternoon, the majority of students had left. 

Without warning, a verbal back-and-forth between security forces and demonstrators turned deadly. Security forces in riot gear advanced, forcing students on the streets back onto campus, with some huddled in small groups along the footpath and small alleyways. A few pushed back, and police responded with force in a scuffle that escalated quickly. The military opened fire, most with tear gas and rubber bullets, but some fired live rounds. Elang and Hendriawan were struck by bullets as they tried to retreat toward campus for safety. Heri and Hafidin are believed to have been killed by officers stationed on building rooftops and walkways above the road. 

Even that much detail has been tough to uncover. Families of the victims, human rights activists and the university have spent two decades agitating for charges to be brought against those responsible. At the very least, they want answers as to why the May 12 demonstration went so wrong. Human Rights Watch’s Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono says the odds of ever getting such a resolution are slim. “I hope I’m wrong,” he says. “But looking at the history of human rights impunity in Indonesia, it’s not likely.”

Even the truth about the immediate aftermath remains murky. The deaths were officially confirmed and reported by media late in the evening. Word spread quickly throughout the capital and the country, and misdirected fury turned the events into one of Indonesia’s bloodiest chapters. “Riots were initially against Suharto,” Harsono explains. “But the objective changed from him to the ethnic Chinese, who are always the scapegoat in Indonesia.” Rioting and mass violence in North Jakarta, a heavily Chinese-Indonesian part of the city, brought Jakarta to a standstill. 

Harsono calls the Trisakti shootings a “breaking point” — not just for the city, but for the New Order regime. As anarchy enveloped the country, the student movement and other activists kept their message clear: Demonstrations and disruption would not end until the president stepped down. The murders of the students “galvanized” the already strong movement, and organized protests continued for weeks. Suharto announced his resignation on May 21, beginning the long transition to bring the world’s fourth-largest country by population to democracy.

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