Sunday, February 22, 1998

Chinese make easy targets

As Indonesia sinks deeper into the economic morass, anger is being directed against the country’s most conspicuous ethnic minority.

Andreas Harsono
The Nation, February 22,1998

In Pamanukan, several pedicab drivers idled at street corners while waiting for passengers. In shadier places not far away, dozens of soldiers, had removed their boots and were taking their nap. Military trucks parked outside a closed bank.

“We have been stationed here for three days without going home,” said an army sergeant. “We didn’t even change our clothes.”

Three days after thousands of Muslims rioted, burned and looted more than 150 Chinese-owned shops, the atmosphere were still tense. No Chinese was seen on the street. 

“Perhaps they are scared. They have mostly fled to big cities like Bandung or Jakarta,” said one pedicab driver.  

Other shops, which were spared from the Feb 13 destruction, remained closed. But they cannot hide wounds inflicted by the rioters. Their iron grates were damaged and glass windows smashed. The graffiti scrawled on the walls read: “Attack Chinese," "Money hungry Chinese fool,” “Anti-Chinese" and “I love Muslim.” 

Muslim families painted Islamic words on their doors. Some simply put a sajadah, the Muslim praying mat, in bid to ensure that looters would not mistake their houses for Chinese one.

The word "pribumi” (native) were sprayed on some of the houses.

“The protesters initially blamed the Chinese for increasing the price of cooking oil from 4.200 to 5.800 rupiah (per litre),” said driver Amin Suhamin, explaining that two shops were first attacked but it took only minutes before the whole town ran amok.

The looters also went to Panorama Hotel and told the Chinese hotel manager, “It’s not yours. This is not your country.” Then they took everything --furniture, banknotes, kitchenware and towels-- into their waiting cars, motorcycles and pedicabs. 

“They were running amok,” said a Chinese trader, adding that the police officers and soldiers stationed here were outnumbered and couldn’t do anything but watch. “But please do not mention my name,” he whispered.

Riots over price hikes such as the one in Pamanukan had erupted in more than three dozen towns in Indonesia since early January. The riots spread to other islands such as Lombok, Sumbawa dan Sumatra.

Hundreds of vehicles were torched and thousands of Chinese-owned buildings were destroyed. Some looters were shot dead. Several Chinese were beaten by the mob. The economic crisis had made the same price increase in those towns of cooking oil, kerosene, rice, sugar or milk.

Many believe that the ongoing anti-Chinese campaign is the most serious since the mass killings in the late 1960s when General Suharto rose to power to replace Indonesia’s founding presiden president Sukarno.

It is estimated that round 500.000 leftists were killed, including many Indonesians of Chinese descent.
In addition to ethnic Chinese shopkeepers, protesters have targeted Christian churches over the rising cost of living.

“This is politics. It is not merely about staple items anymore. The churches have nothing to do with the price hikes,” said Suhamin.

Political analysts had their own explanations for the anti-Chinese riots. Some openly blamed Chinese speculators for stockpiling staple items. They also alleged that the Chinese were not nationalists because the community did not want to take the burden of the current economic crisis which had seen the rupiah lost almost 80 percent of its value.

Pro-government newspapers and television subscribed to this view. Businesswoman Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, the eldest daughter of president Suharto, had complained that her “I love rupiah” campaign did not succeed since “many big businesses” gave no support, as if trying to say that the pribumi businesses people did give their support but not the Chinese. 

Others said the anti-Chinese campaign is engineered by some elements within the military with the help of the people like Rukmana. The purpose is to divert the public anger from president Suharto to the affluent minority. The campaign is pretty similar to the Dutch colonial strategy in inciting inter-ethnic hostility. 

Radical Muslim preachers also jumped on the bandwagon. Using the crisis as a cover. They attacked a right-leaning think tank which used to help the Suharto government to crack down on the Muslims in the 1970s and 1980s. Fadli Zon, a young Muslim activist, told the Far Eastern Economic Review that it is better to be rid of the Chinese and the become a less developed Indonesia rather than having to live the Chinese.

Muslim intellectual Ulil Abshar-Abdalla, who helped to cool the riots in the Rembang area on the northern coast of the Central Java, underlined the general impression here that the military had apparently tolerated the looting.

“The just looked on and let the looters attacks the Chinese,” he said.

Similarly, Muslim leader Amien Rais took a more conciliatory line.

"They Chinese are also our brothers and they have become a part of this integrated nation. The protesters have to direct their anger and protesters at the government since it must be held responsible for the economic problem,” he said 

Chinese traders lamented that they are the ones who are always made the scapegoats in the time of crisis. Unlike the rich tycoons who could easily fly to Singapore or Sydney, middle-class Chinese families have to stay put and brave the violence. 

Yohanes Lim Pek Hua, a Chinese shop owner who has a shop in Cikampek, same 100 km from Pamanukan, however, believed that he was immune to the rioting.

“I have very good relation with my neighbours here,” he said.

Some of his neighbours agreed. But such ties will not guarantee that the neighbours are prepared to defend Lim’s construction shop if it was looted by our siders. 

“Everybody is terrified,” the 40-year old trader said, adding that if his shop is looted, he would leave Cikampek and return to his hometown on the island of Kalimantan where the Dayak population are said to be much friendlier toward the Chinese.

“People do not want to face the real problem here but find a scapegoat. Perhaps, it is a tradition,” Lim said, bitterly.

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