Friday, March 07, 1997

"We never had a problem before"

Andreas Harsono
The Nation, March 7, 1997

The Nation’s Andreas Harsono returns to Rengasdengklok in search of the spark that triggered unprecedented sectarian rioting in the Indonesian town.

Five weeks after thousands of Muslim rioters attacked and vandalized Christian churches, Buddhist temples and Chinese-owned buildings in this small town almost 60 kilometers northeast of Jakarta, residents are still puzzled about why it happened.

They can quickly identify the trigger point of the riot. A Chinese woman scolded a Muslim teenager who was beating a drum in front of a mushola, a small mosque, next door to the woman’s house in the wee hours of Jan 30.

Businesseswoman Cik Gue shouted that the drum beating was disrupting her sleep, but the teenager shot back that it was part of traditional expected activities during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Now government, religious and Chinese leaders and even the teenager himself are wondering why the Muslims not only vented their anger at Liu, but also attacked the other minorities.

"They grabbed, smashed and killed my daughter’s poodle," said Rev Martin Schalkwyk, whose Pentecostal church was burned down, pointing at blood stains on the church wall where the poodle died.

A mushola is typically a small neighborhood mosque where Muslims can conduct their daily prayer. Rengasdengklok has more than 500 musholas and more than 100 regular mosques as well as five Christian churches and two Buddhist temples.

Rengasdengklok community leaders interviewed said the roots of the riot are much more complicated than most observers in Jakarta have believed, far more than merely an expression of anti-Chinese or anti-Christian anger.

"Religious believers here had lived harmoniously. We had never had a problem before," said Muslim leader Acep Halimi, who heads the Indonesian Ulama Council, the umbrella organization of Muslim ministers in Rengasdengklok, explaining that he had never heard any complaints lodged by his followers against non-Muslims.

"Unlike in other places, the Chinese and the on-Chinese here are not integrated but united. They live side by side in a mutually respectful relationship,” said Halimi, adding that he could understand if Christians expanded their churches to make room for new members and children.

Schalwyk and Rev Mulia Waruku, the minister at the local Presbyterian church, also said their churches had never received complaints either from their respective Muslim neighbors or other Muslims.

Witnesses said Liu was very angry when the teenager failed to heed her complaint and reportedly threatened to call the police to silence the noisy drum beating. Liu did call the police, and an officer came to the neighborhood at about 3 am to try to the solve the problem.

But rumors spread faster than the officer could have anticipated. Three hours later, dozens of Muslims began to throw stones at Liu house. It snowballed. More and more people joined in and within 30 minutes, they had destroyed the house and prompted officers to evacuate the Liu family.

In a bid to save their properties, Muslim traders immediately sprayed the word “Muslim” on their buildings. Interestingly, some of them also painted the same word on the property of their Chinese neighbors’ to save them as the rioters attacked.

Some Muslim women also organized themselves to protect the Chinese families living in their neighborhood. “My Muslim neighbour throw her sajadah (Muslim prayer rug) into my living room. It did not help, actually. The rioters still destroyed my house. But I will never forget her help,” said a Chinese woman whose house is next door to a Buddhist temple where rioters hung a status of Buddha on the front gate.

Others tried to make the point that Chinese are not merely the rich while the indigenous Muslims are poor. More than half of the population of a farming area in Rengasdengklok, the Kampung Sawah, are poor Chinese who work on coastal ponds. Rioters didn’t burn a single building there.

Waruku, however, noted that several of his congregation are not Chinese but Sundanese, the ethnic group that lives in western Java, and also had their houses burned down, implying that the riot was not exclusively anti-Chinese one.

Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese community accounts for about seven million of the country’s 200 million people, but the Chinese minority plays a dominant role in business. Most ethnic Chinese Indonesians are either Christians or Buddhists and have been the target of mass unrest in several cities in recent months as mare than 1.000 Chinese owned buildings and more than 50 churches and temples were torn apart.

Local legislator Mukri Saadi, however, provided a different explanation, saying that in the Muslims have long been alarmed by the expansive “Christianisation” of Rengasdengklok, referring more specially to the erection of a monument in downtown Rengasdengklok in the shape of a fish, which he interpreted as the ancient Greek Symbol of Jesus Christ.

“A lot of Muslims have complained about the symbol being erected in the most strategic location in town,” Mukri said, adding that the main sponsor of the monument, Bank Pantura Abadi, a small bank operating only around Rengasdengklok, is owned by a wealthy Chinese businessman.

Christianisation is always a sensitive word in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim community. The Muslims repeatedly alleged that Christian missionaries had lured people into converting to Christianity through charities and Christian run school. 

A top government official also admitted that the monument had created resentment among Muslims in Rengasdengklok and the government tore it down a few days after the riot. Banker Herry Susanto, a.k.a. Thio Hok Lie, who headed Bank Pantura Abadi, is not only a wealthy local businessman but also among the most powerful, wealthy and well-connected ethnic Chinese residents of Rengasdengklok.

He is perhaps typical” of business leaders of Chinese descent in southeast Asia who are aggressive, industrious and have found powerful political backing. Another is Indonesia’s most successful financial magnate, Liam Sioe Liong, one of the richest men in Asia, who is closely related to President Suharto.

Economists commonly say that people cannot do business on a major scale in Indonesia, in particular, or Southeast Asia in general, without the baking of powerful politicians. They say collusion between business players and government officials has become a common practice among Asian leaders. US President Bill Clinton is currently in the middle of a political scandal over their contributions to him. 

Mukri alleged that Susanto his also behind the renovation of the Presbyterian church, where the banker is a member. The new building is several times larger than the old one and taller than its building permit allows.

Susanto whoever, denied that allegation, saying that is bank sponsored the monument because he was asked to. “As the main sponsor, of course, I asked them to put the logo of my bank on top of the bell tower,” he said.

In a separate interview, Waruku defended Susanto, saying that the allegation that the church renovation had created problems among the city’s Muslims was groundless.

"We got all the required licenses, and the building is built based on the those licenses. We enlarged the church building because we have to anticipate the growth of church members over the next 10 years. We cannot renovate the church every year.”

Susanto, however, did not deny that his bank’s logo resembled a fish. When asked whether he was deterred by the riot, the Chinese businessman whose bank was destroyed and suffered losses of more than Bt2.5 million said firmly, “business should go on as usual.”

While working to fix some broken altars, Buddhist leader Yo Cun Siang of the Shia Djin Kong temple said that his priority was to rebuild the divided town. Yo said he did not have words to express his feeling when he saw statutes of the Chinese goddess Kwan being thrown into garbage bins without her arms.

“Who knows whether some Thai people want to make a donation here?” the bronze skinned Yo said, explaining that he needs around Bt1.25 million to renovate the Chinese temple. 

Martin Schalwyk recalled that the government did not have the funding to help rebuild his burned down church. But a lot of Christians have been coming to his parish, talking to him, prayed and slipped an envelope into this hand before leaving the runs. ***

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