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21 years on, who is responsible for Trisakti riot killings?

Trisakti University students and police forces clash in May 1998. Source: Wikimedia/Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Indonesia – Public Domain

Although 21 years have passed, the Indonesian government has not brought the party responsible for the Trisakti riots in May 1998 - that see four activists were killed and more than 600 students were injured - to be tried.

21 years have passed since the Trisakti tragedy which was the marker of student resistance to the Indonesia's New Order government. But until now the party that is actually responsible for this incident has not been brought to justice.

The pressure to resolve this case emerges from various parties over the past two decades, including from Amnesty International Indonesia.

"First, Amnesty urges the state's responsibility to settle the tragedy of students shootings at Trisakti University, Atma Jaya University, and at other campuses in Indonesia that occurred in the early days of the Reformation," Executive Director of the Amnesty International Indonesia, Usman Hamid, said as quoted by

On 12 May 1998, four students - Elang Mulia Lesmana, Hafidin Royan, Heri Hartanto, and Hendriawan Si - were killed in the shootings of demonstration participants who opposed the Soeharto government, at the Trisakti University campus, Grogol, West Jakarta.

Documentation of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) recorded there are 681 injuries from various universities in Indonesia.

Trisakti May 1998 Riots
A woman waves an Indonesian flag as 4 lanes of a major road in Jakarta is blocked by Trisakti University students in Jakarta, Tuesday, May 12, 1998.
AAP Image/AP Photo/Muchtar Zakaria

Kidnapping victim gives political support in the hope of resolving the case 

One of the names of activists also known from this 1998 incident was Desmond Junaidi Mahesa. He was one of the victims of the kidnapping of several pro-democracy activists at that time.

"I was abducted when I was going to a meeting with the Youth Forum (Forum Kebangsaan Pemuda). It was a collection of non-HMI (Muslim Students' Association) student organisations. The meeting was at GMKI. I was from Cililitan, I took 'angkot', walked on foot, were pushed to fall, [head] covered in black cloth and [I was] put in the car. After that I had no idea at all where the place was," Desmond said in an interview with SBS News.

"I was in the middle [in the car]. There were people on the left and right, and two at the front. So I was in the middle and I couldn't do anything."

Desmond claims he doesn't remember how long he was in the car, but remembers that the next moment was that he was held captive in a room. There were also a number of other people detained there.

"This is an operational matter... ordered by the Indonesian Defence Force Commander," Desmond said.

"Why? The indications are that [there is] the police and people are abducted differently. By different agencies."

Desmond Junaidi Mahesa
Desmond Junaidi Mahesa was assaulted and abducted on his way to a political meeting in Jakarta in 1998.
SBS News

Ten years in the parliament, currently Desmond Junaidi Mahesa is the head of Commission 3 in the Indonesian Parliament (Lower House) in charge of legal and national security issues.

In last May national election, Desmond publicly gave his support to number 2 presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, who at the time of the 1998 Trisakti incident served as Commander of the Army Special Force, Kopassus.

Some kidnapping victims, as well as family members of those who never returned, hold him responsible. But Desmond has his own views.

"First I want this case related to me to be clear too," he said. "The second is how could Prabowo, if he was elected as the president, would not explain events that tend to be slanderous of him."

Desmond said he does not blame Prabowo because that means narrow thinking and being caught up in the political games of those who sacrificed him.

"If this truth is true, it means that Prabowo is guilty, I will say he is guilty," he said. "But in the military context, actually he is not the first to be held accountable.

"If this is a command, it must be joint responsibility."

Trisakti May 1998 Riots
Protesting students restrain themselves from rushing toward police on a Jakarta street in front of Trisakti University Tuesday, May 12, 1998.
AAP Image/AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana

Desmond said he hoped that if Prabowo was elected president he would carry out a process to clarify the case which also dragged his name.

"I don't defend Prabowo," he said. "For me there must be a clarification for the interests of the families of the victims and the interests of this nation so that this does not happen again by the regimes that will rule in the future."

Desmond said he saw the post-1998 government regime had not processed the Trisakti case fairly.

"Because the issue of severe human rights violations is the responsibility of the government to provide security to its people," he said. "And this must be processed... in the process of justice. This is what the regimes have not done, from Habibie... Gus Dur... Megawati, SBY, including Jokowi.

"For me, I hope this process be solved. I hope that every new regime resolve every human rights crime."

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