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Indonesian parents wait for justice 20 years after Suharto's fall

© AFP | An activist attends a rally outside the presidential palace in Jakarta, demanding justice for their children's deaths

JAKARTA (AFP) - 

Almost every week Asih Widodo attends a vigil outside Indonesia's presidential palace, seeking justice for his son who died in an orgy of violence after the fall of dictator Suharto.

Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the former general's 1998 resignation at the height of the Asian economic crisis as Indonesia was paralysed by riots, food shortages, a plunging rupiah currency and mass unemployment.

More than 1,000 people are estimated to have been killed in riots and protests shortly before and in the months after Suharto's autocratic regime collapsed.

Widodo's son, engineering student Sigit Prasetyo, died in a hail of army gunfire aimed at protesters.

"I was at work when I got a phone call that my son was in a hospital -- I knew immediately in my heart he was gone," Widodo told AFP at a recent vigil alongside other bereaved parents demanding answers over the death of protesting students.

"My son was murdered by the army."

In the past two decades the country of 260 million has undergone what many see as a remarkable transition to democracy but Southeast Asia's biggest economy still grapples with rampant corruption and inequality.

Suharto -- who grabbed power in 1967 following the massacre in 1965-6 of hundreds of thousands of alleged communist sympathisers and ethnic Chinese -- died in 2008.

He was never held to account for the suspected looting of billions of dollars from state coffers or rights abuses during his three-decade rule, which became a byword for corruption and cronyism.

And the violence linked to his government's collapse is another dark chapter which Indonesia has yet to address in any meaningful way.

- 'I'll keep fighting' -

Ethnic Chinese Indonesians bore the brunt of the bloodshed in the last days of Suharto, with women cowering in their homes for days as rape squads -- purportedly led by army thugs -- roamed Jakarta's streets.

Many died trapped in burning buildings as angry mobs -- resentful of their relative financial success -- ransacked Chinese-owned stores, smashed windows and set fire to cars as the government teetered on the verge of collapse.

Ayu Puspita was 30 when crowds stormed through the capital targeting Chinese-owned shops.

"It was so chaotic. Cars were being burned, motorcycles were toppled over -- it was just so scary," said Puspita at her restaurant in Glodok, known as Jakarta's Chinatown.

Subianto, a 67-year-old parking attendant who has worked in Chinatown for some five decades, said he watched in shock as parts of the city went up in flames.

"There were no police, no soldiers. People were looting everywhere. Trucks were coming to steal things," he said.

Hundreds of Chinese-owned homes and businesses were looted and razed during the unrest, which unfolded under the noses of the security forces. Their failure to intervene has fuelled suspicions of military involvement ever since.

Some buildings in Jakarta's Chinatown remain damaged even decades later.

"The sound of sirens scare me. I'm terrified every time I see a large group of people approaching," Puspita said.

"I didn't choose where I was born or what my ethnicity is."

Efforts to hold members of the then-government and military accountable for the death of ethnic Chinese and others have gone nowhere.

But Widodo, who rides a motorbike emblazoned with the words "My son was murdered by the army", will keep demanding answers.

"This country does not care, but I do," the 67-year-old said.

"I'll keep fighting as long as I am still alive."

© 2018 AFP