The Malari Mystery

Tempo Magazine
No. 23/VIII
February 05-11, 2008

Cover Story

The cause of the Malari riots is still a mystery. Court trials failed to prove that university students were behind the violence.

JANUARY 15, 1974. University students hit the streets. They demonstrated against the arrival of Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka of Japan. Tanaka was seen as the symbol of foreign capital which must be done away with. Taking the form of a long march from Salemba to Trisakti University in Grogol, West Jakarta, the action carried three demands: eradication of corruption, a change in the economic policy on foreign capital, and abolishment of the institution of Personal Assistant to the President. Hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets. The action, however, ended in turbulence.

According to Hariman, the students’ action ended at 2:30pm, “whereas the riot,” he says, “broke out an hour later.” A mob that claimed to have come from among laborers ransacked Senen Market, Blok M, and the Glodok (Chinatown) area. They went on arampage, burning Japanese-made cars and shops.

Head of the Operations Command for the Restoration of Security & Order (Kopkamtib), Gen. Sumitro, tried to block the mob around the Sarinah area of Central Jakarta. He tried to divert the mob, which was headed toward the Presidential Palace. “Come on, let’swalk together to Kebayoran,” he yelled to the crowd. “My intention was to deflect the direction of their march, away from the National Monument (Monas)…”

The mob was undeterred, however. To Tempo several years ago, Sumitro claimed to have offered a dialog between the Students Council of the University of Indonesia (UI) and Tanaka. Tanaka agreed, but the students responded with the message that “the dialog is substituted with a street dialog…”

Jakarta had in the meantime become a sea of fire. That day more than 10 people died, while hundreds were injured. Nearly 1,000 cars and motorcycles were destroyed and burned, hundreds of buildings damaged. In addition, 160 kilos of gold vanished from jewelry shops. The situation was so critical that Suharto had to escort Tanaka by helicopter to Halim airport for his return trip to his country.

Hariman Siregar, Chairman of the UI Students Council, was dragged to court on charges of subversion. After a four-month trial, he was sentenced to six years in prison.

“I was deemed guilty of subverting the authority of the state,” said Hariman when Tempo visited him in March 2006. The price he had to pay was high. While he was serving his jail term, his father died, his beloved wife fell ill, and his twin children died.

It was that storm over Jakarta on January 15, 1974 (better known as Malari, for Malapetaka Lima Belas Januari, January 15 Catastrophe) that changed the course of Indonesia, because, as Asvi Warman Adam related in an article he wrote, since then Suharto has resorted to repression in a systematic way. Syahrir, who was also detained after the incident, sees Malari as a form of consolidation of Suharto’s power.

In all, the security apparatus arrested 750 people, 50 of them student activists and intellectuals such as Hariman Siregar, Sjahrir, Yap Thiam Hien, Mochtar Lubis, Rahman Tolleng and Aini Chailid. “Imagine, on January 11, I was embraced by Suharto, on the 17th I was arrested,” recalled Hariman. Indeed, on January 11, Suharto received Hariman along with other student leaders at Bina Graha, the presidential office. Suharto had intended all the time to curb the students’ actions.

The prominent persons were detained on the basis of the Anti-subversion Law. Some released after having languished for a year in prison, because they were not proven guilty. The Anti-subversion Law-based trials drew criticism.

Until today, the mystery of the riots has not been unraveled. Sjahrir contended that the court had been unable to prove that the students were behind the burning of the cars and the looting. It should not come as a surprise if speculation arose that the Malari calamity was the fire that sparked resulting from rivalry between generals Sumitro and Ali Murtopo (respectively Chief of Special Operations and Presidential Personal Assistant at that time). Sumitro allegedly harbored
ambition, as cited in the so-called Ramadi Documents. According to Asvi Warman, Ramadi was known to be close to Ali Murtopo.

The late Sumitro confided that he had once asked Ali Murtopo about the rivalry, long before Malari occurred. “Ali, outside voices say that you are my rival. That cannot be. I’m still a military man, I have no political goals. You are a two-star, I’m a four-star. You are Intelligence Coordination Agency (Bakin) Deputy, I’m Operations Commander for the Restoration of Security & Order (Pangkopkamtib) and Armed Forces Deputy Commander (Wapangab). We are too distant from each other to be rivals. Yet, if you want to be President, that is your right.” At that time, Ali Murtopo promptly denied it. “Oh, no. nothing of that sort in my mind,” Sumitro quoted Ali as responding.

The Malari affair eventually caused both generals to lose their jobs. Suharto relieved Sumitro from his posts as Pangkopkamtib  and Wapangab and at the same time abolished the institution of Presidential Special Assistant. Even so, several years later Suharto still employed Ali Murtopo to fill various positions in the bureaucracy.

More than three decades have passed, yet today mystery still shrouds the affair. In his biography, Suharto does not mention that dark period. Hariman must continue believing that the    government would soon unravel the mystery.