Burning Books

It was another tense and sweltering evening, and for the fourth straight evening, Surjana Lustrilanang camped out with hundreds of students at the entrance of Trisakti University in Jakarta. For nearly a week now, daily demonstrations had rocked cities around Indonesia, where thousands of students and labor activists demanded an end to rapid inflation and the political corruption of President’s Suharto regime. As a condition for receiving a $10 billion "rescue" package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Indonesian government was forced to cut public subsidies in several essential items, including petroleum, rice, and cooking oil. Shrinking sources of income and runaway inflation caused widespread resentment among many urban residents, and on university campuses around the country, students took up the cause of ousting Suharto and establishing economic and social order throughout Indonesia. After weeks of increasingly hostile street rallies, led mostly by students like Surjana, the peace was finally broken in May, 1998 when police fired shots into a throng of students, killing six and seriously injuring several others.

For Surjana, the brutal death of his best friend at the hands of the police further hardened his position, and despite pleas from his parents, he continued to lead protests against the government, going so far as to even paint himself black and flash a dollar sign on his chest as a cry against the corruption and dependence of a country held hostage to the demands of foreign IMF bankers. When Surjana first came to Trisakti University to study biology, he never dreamed he would ever risk his career, or as it turned out his life, for a seemingly futile political cause. Crackdowns on even the smallest sign of dissent during Suharto’s rule discouraged most from speaking out, but the financial crash and the widespread resentment that followed in its wake, unleashed pent up frustrations and blew the top off the proverbial bottle. On the day following the funeral of the six dead students, riots engulfed Jakarta. As roving mobs of protesters went on a rampage, setting fire to countless buildings and attacking military personnel, several students were detained and tortured with electrical shocks and water immersion. Some were not as "lucky" however. For hundreds of protesters and looters - including Surjana - being in the wrong place at the wrong time meant dying a gruesome death in a burning building or shop. In the end, over 500 people lost their lives on that day, and among the hundreds of other unidentifiable remains, Surjana’s charred body remained as anonymous and symbolic as his paint-smeared torso just days before.