Today is the 11th anniversary of the May 13-14 riots in Jakarta. It is also the 40th anniversary of the May 13 riots in Kuala Lumpur. These are key Indolaysia-themed events, and it's worth pausing to think about their role in modern politics in each country.
The background: In Indonesia, the May 13-14 riots represented the final death throes of Soeharto's New Order regime. Coming on the heels of the massacre of four student protestors on May 12 and in the midst of one of the world's worst peacetime economic contraction since WWII, they saw masses run amok against the symbols of Soeharto's power. They were also the scene of truly horrific anti-Chinese violence, both physical violence (murder) and sexual violence (rape). I like James Siegel's description of the politics surrounding these riots. What's important to note is that just over a week later, Soeharto resigned and Indonesia started on the long road to democratization.
In Malaysia, the May 13 riots represented the impending collapse of a consociational bargain between the country's Chinese and Indian minorities and its Malay majority (or really, at the time, plurality). After independence in 1957 and the formation of the Federation Malaysia in 1963, the bargain (known politically as "the Alliance") allowed the comparatively wealthy Chinese minority to run their economic affairs with minimal state interference, while Malays would occupy center stage politically. It turned out that at the end of the day, neither side really like this bargain. Malays wanted real economic empowerment–the regime had some token programs, but not nearly enough. Chinese wanted a political system that didn't just leave them alone, but actually responded affirmatively to their demands for substantive representation. When opposition parties (the largest of which had a primarily Chinese constituency) were able to wrestle away the Alliance's 2/3 majority, the subsequent victory celebrations turned into deadly intercommunal rioting. In the wake of the riots, the current political system was formed, one that until 2008 was remarkably effective at allowing Malays to run politics while also giving them unheralded economic opportunities. The losers have been Chinese Malaysians.
I don't like to ascribe huge significance to individual events, even though I recognize this makes me a minority among analysts of local politics here and in KL. That is, I don't think that it's accurate to say that the riots caused Soeharto to resign. Rather, these riots were more of a symptom of a larger issue, that is, the collapse of the stable coalition of economic interests underlying the New Order system. (John Sidel makes a related point.) Likewise, the riots in KL didn't cause the collapse of the Alliance and the rise of the BN. Rather, they were a symptom of the unworkability of the consociational bargain in Malaysia, one that had "Malays run politics, and Chinese run the economy." The analogy here is of a pressure cooker. If I dial up the pressure on my pressure cooker too high, it will explode and destroy my kitchen. While it's trivially true that the explosion is the proximate cause of the destruction of my kitchen, the "real" or underlying cause is my decision to dial up the pressure too high.
But nevertheless, I may object to thinking about these events as independent causes of the fall of Soeharto and the rise of the BN, but that doesn't mean that they haven't come to have large symbolic importance in politics. Here's what I mean. In Malaysia, May 13th has become something of a shorthand way of describing what the regime likes to think are all the unpleasant side effects of otherwise good things, like, you know, democracy and political change. The image (however overblown, however non-representative, however unlikely today) of Malays with machetes running around and hacking Chinese to pieces has been used repeatedly to frighten ethnic Chinese into supporting a political regime that discriminates against them. That is, it's used to justify the status quo.
In Indonesia, May 13th plays a different role. There's not a clean contrast, but if there is, it's that May 13th represents just how bad things had gotten under Soeharto. And by implication, it's used by progressives in Indonesia as a shorthand for the perils of undemocratic politics led by ruthless military men. The newspapers here are carrying memorials of the May 13-14 riots that are very openly critical of Prabowo Subianto and Wiranto, who never faced charges for (or even really open investigations into) their roles in the events of 1998. Of course, there is also a sense of deep shame among many Indonesians about the events of May 1998. It's frightening to think that just eleven years ago the streets of Jakarta and other major cities were burning.
Two final thoughts, which I offer without any additional commentary.
— While May 13-14 was horrific in Indonesia, and the 1998-2002 period was really scary, today Indonesia is, to use the words of Andrew MacIntyre and Douglas Ramage, "a stable, competitive electoral democracy, with a highly decentralised system of governance, achieving solid rates of economic growth, under competent national leadership, and playing a constructive role in the regional and broader international community."
— While May 13 was horrific in Malaysia as well, it's hard to think of another country where (1) ethnicity and communalism are more politicized and (2) physical violence among communities has been so rare. While Belgium might give Malaysia a run for its money on (2), Flemings vs. Walloons has nothing on (1).