Asia's Broken Lives
Ethnic Chinese: Indonesia's Scapegoats
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, Dec. 23, 1998;
Part of an occasional series
JAKARTA, Indonesia When Indonesia was rocked by two days of arson, looting and rape last May, mobs attacked the home of billionaire tycoon Liem Sioe Liong, a longtime business associate of then-President Suharto. Liem wasn't at home at the time his guards said he had left the country for Singapore so the rioters torched his house in a posh Jakarta neighborhood and set fire to five of his luxury cars.
In the far west of the capital, another angry crowd attacked a noodle shop run by a 42-year-old woman named Merry. Her house was not posh she lived in a small room on the third floor of a narrow walk-up just above her shop. With no place to go, she hid upstairs when the rampage began. The next day, Merry's blackened, charred corpse, and those of her three daughters, were pulled from the remnants of their house.
The billionaire tycoon and the woman running the noodle shop occupied two entirely different worlds. One was powerful and privileged, the other just getting by. But to the marauding youths setting the fires that day, Liem and Merry shared one trait that made them the enemy: Both were ethnic Chinese.
For years, to be ethnic Chinese in Indonesia usually had meant occupying a place of relative prosperity in a poor but rapidly developing country. Though they represent only 3 percent of the population, ethnic Chinese control as much as 80 percent of the country's private-sector commerce, from small shops to distribution networks to giant banks.
But in this year of shattered lives and economic upheaval in Asia, Indonesia's Chinese have suffered a singular tragedy. As Indonesia's currency and then its economy have collapsed, the shopkeepers and small traders that make up the heart of the Chinese community have seen their businesses crushed by economic pressures. But even worse, thousands have seen their stores and homes looted and burned by Indonesian rioters.
The rioting in May, and a smaller outburst six months later, have left the community in a state of siege. Dozens have been killed by mobs, and scores of women have been raped. Families have split as thousands have fled for safety abroad. Those who remain are uncertain about their future in a country where most were born, and where most have no choice but to remain.
Theirs is the classic fear of an ethnic minority singled out in a time of economic trouble for blame and retribution. There is a 12-year-old girl named Iyung who wakes up screaming in the night, whose only solace comes in a can she holds for protection. There is a young college student who has fitted her house with defensive weapons a sword, a bamboo pole, a sawed-off table leg to be used as a club. There is 54-year-old Tony Lim, who lost his ceramic-tile business and saw his comfortable life shattered, and who now has no money to send his 19-year-old twin daughters to college.
"Life is completely different now," he said, shaking his head. "If there is a future here, it will be just a small chance for the Chinese to have a life like we had before. In Indonesia, we are waiting to die."
Indonesia's Chinese are part of a sprawling East Asian diaspora, the descendants of emigrants who fanned out across the region a century or more ago to Vietnam and Thailand, the Philippines and the Indonesian archipelago, escaping poverty and persecution in their homeland.
Those earlier migrants came mostly penniless fishermen and farmers and small traders but they brought with them the immigrants' drive, a facility for trade, a network of connections based on clan and family, village and dialect, and, in some cases, an aversion to involvement in the political struggles of their new adopted homelands.
For their success, the Chinese were both envied and resented. But for most of the last two decades, after China opened its doors to the outside world to trade and investment, the ethnic Chinese have been one of the engines that drove what became known as the East Asian economic miracle.
Then, as the miracle has turned to a debilitating economic collapse over the past 18 months, the search began for someone to blame.
In most places Thailand, South Korea, Japan the anger has been directed at governments and ruling establishments. In Indonesia, where the fall has been furthest and fastest, popular rage toppled Suharto and his authoritarian regime last May after 30 years in power. The country is now lurching fitfully in search of a more democratic future.
But the collapse of the old order has exposed the many raw divides in this far-flung archipelago of 202 million people. Muslims have attacked Christians. The poor have begun confiscating the properties of the rich. And the so-called "indigenous" Indonesians, or pribumis, have attacked ethnic Chinese, who many see as beneficiaries of the old corrupt system.
There are only a handful of tycoons like Liem the heads of the 200 or so top conglomerates and their families, who benefited from their connections to Suharto and his family members, and gained monopoly concessions in such lucrative fields as cooking oil and commodities, timber and pharmaceuticals.
The vast majority of Indonesia's ethnic Chinese population are small traders and retail shop owners, selling stereo equipment and desktop computers from cramped stalls and storefronts. They live not in suburban mansions, but in small walk-ups above their stores. But most still favor Chinese over the native Indonesian language, and most are Christian or Buddhist in a country that is 90 percent Muslim.
They are people like Ahong, 41, an electronics dealer.
Mobs attacked Ahong's modest house in Jakarta during the riots last May, looting everything inside, including the spoons. They also pillaged and burned his two small electronics shops, leaving him to start again from scratch.
Ahong couldn't afford to flee the country, although he says he would if he could; instead, he had to take his wife and three children to sleep at a friend's. He now survives with support from the neighborhood Buddhist temple.
"I was very traumatized by it," said Ahong, who was born in Indonesia of Chinese immigrant parents. "But I told myself in my heart that I have to survive by staying here."
As Ahong spoke, he was walking through the charred remains of a burned-out, six-story shopping center. He said his most difficult task besides rebuilding his businesses is restoring the confidence of his family that it is safe to stay here all while recognizing that they have no place to go.
Ahong couldn't bring himself to explain to his children ages 15, 10 and 8 what happened, why they were targeted simply for belonging to what their attackers considered the wrong race. "We were just too traumatized," he said. "We just stayed silent. But they understood."
"All of our work for the last 30 years was finished in the riots," he said, shaking his head at the destruction. "I don't understand. Chinese people never colonized Indonesia. Why do they hate us so much?"
Why are the Chinese so hated? Why are they the targets of violence in times of economic upheaval? The answer can be found, in part, just a few blocks away from Ahong's damaged shop, in the shadows of a passageway of a North Jakarta railway station, where a 28-year-old unemployed man named Rudy is sleeping with several friends.
Rudy does not seem a violent man, and he doesn't consider himself a thief. But last May, when the burning and looting started, he was there with two dozen friends, in the Chinese-populated district called Tanjung Priok, loading up a pushcart with a looted refrigerator, a mattress, television sets, video recorders and anything else they could carry.
To Rudy and his friends, it wasn't exactly stealing just a necessary redistribution of income in what is otherwise an unjust and unfair system.
"Everything was burning at the time," said Rudy, wearing a black T-shirt with the word "America" in red, white and blue on the chest. "I felt sorry for [the Chinese]. But I'm hungry, so what can I do?"
As poor Indonesians tell it, the Chinese are targets because they are seen as rich, because the government is thought to have favored them, and because, more simply, they are different they are a group that stands apart and sometimes appears aloof to indigenous Indonesian society. Rudy said he harbors no hatred toward the Chinese. But, he said, "they are just too rich and we are just too poor."
Deni, 19, shares the passageway with Rudy. During the rioting last May, he, too, went out and looted, in another part of Jakarta. He, too, expressed remorse for the violence even while condoning the theft of merchandise. "I feel sorry for the Chinese who were beaten," he said. "It's enough for us just to loot their things. But we are not supposed to beat them or kill them."
What they did was pillage and burn. The rioting, from May 13 to 15, was some of the worst ever in Jakarta and other major cities, with shopping malls destroyed, vehicles set ablaze, police stations attacked and members of the Chinese community systematically targeted. Reports later said some 1,190 people died in fires in Jakarta mostly looters trapped in burning stores and 27 were killed by weapons, knives, clubs and guns. Some 33 others were reported to have died in riots elsewhere in the country.
An assessment by a government-appointed investigative team concluded Nov. 4, after a six-month probe, that the riots were deliberately sparked by pro-government militants, including a rogue faction within the armed forces, who aimed at justifying the imposition of emergency rule and keeping Suharto in power.
In perhaps its most chilling conclusion, the investigating panel substantiated what already was known widely here but what some government officials had tried to deny: that during the riots, 66 women and girls, almost all of them ethnic Chinese, were raped in Jakarta and other cities. "It has yet to be ascertained whether the sexual violence that occurred was premeditated, or mere excesses of the rioting," the report said. [The government admitted Monday, for the first time, that women, most of them ethnic Chinese, were gang-raped during the riots, but said the number was fewer than 66.]
For many Indonesian Chinese, there is little uncertainty about the rapes: They were premeditated, and systematic. The proof can be found in the lingering symbols a circle, a cross or an arrow drawn with red paint.
Eva, who is 24, didn't notice it at first. A friend pointed it out on her door, days after the rioting had subsided. But when she looked, it was indeed there, and unmistakable a small circle, painted in red.
It was a sign, she learned later, left for potential attackers. It meant that a Chinese family lived in the house and that a girl was there who should be raped.
"I felt I had almost been raped," said Eva, who quickly scraped the painted markings from her door. "I was so scared. At night, I can't sleep because I'm still thinking about that."
On the green metal gate of Tan Ay Mei's house, next door to the furniture store she runs, the symbols are even more explicit. There are two stick figures painted in red, one atop the other, and a large red arrow with a clear sexual connotation. Next to the crudely painted symbol is a single number, 13, which she believes stands for May 13, the day Jakarta exploded in violence and the looting began.
She didn't need to see the symbol on her gate to know that she had to flee.
The mob arrived at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, after burning and looting its way up the length of the narrow street. Tan, who is 37, was huddled inside the furniture store with her husband and three teenage children. As attackers banged on the shutters shouting "Kill the Chinese!" the store's workers gave the family a sign when it was safe to run. They raced through the back door, put a ladder against the 10-foot-high back wall, and jumped into a fish pond and ran to a neighbor's house.
And they waited. The whole family huddled there, beneath a bed, terrified, and able to hear the mob rampaging through their shop, carting away the furniture, then setting it ablaze. On the upstairs wall of the furniture shop was left a spray-painted warning that translates as "Slaughter Chinese."
"They burned the shop and looted our house next door," Tan said, shaking as she recalled her fear. "They looted everything. Even my clothes. Even the spoons and forks. ... We didn't bring anything. We were afraid we would be killed." She said she lost merchandise worth 600 million rupiah about $60,000.
Since then, she and her husband have rebuilt their furniture store. They had no choice, they said, since they needed to work to survive. But rebuilding their lives will not be so easy.
"I'm Chinese, but I've been living in Indonesia, so I'm Indonesian," she said. "Maybe that's how people think that I'm Chinese, even though I'm an Indonesian citizen. But they don't know how long my family has been here."
Tan's furniture store has been at the same location for longer than she has been alive. Her family started the business some 40 years ago, she believes, although it may have been earlier. And asked how long her ancestors have lived in Indonesia, she closed her eyes and thought hard for a minute but failed to find a precise number five generations, perhaps, maybe even six.
She would rather leave Indonesia now, she said, but she knows she cannot. So she borrowed money from friends to rebuild, and has gone into debt with wholesalers to restock the furniture. She knows her future, like that of all Chinese, may be limited here, but she sees no other option but to stay. "I didn't have the choice of not opening the store again," she said.
The threats and intimidation have continued. One day in November, she recalled, three men came to the store brandishing sticks, demanding money from her husband and threatening to beat him if he resisted. She later tried to report the incident at the local police station, but said a policeman brusquely turned her away, saying, "If you are good to people, they will be good to you!"
The family now keeps a wooden ladder affixed to the back wall, in case of the need for another escape. "My head just keeps spinning, especially as we get closer to elections," Tan said. "I keep having headaches, and I'm depressed everyday." She added, "Our life is just being scared now."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company