Rioters Torch Aspirations of Upper Class
By Cindy Shiner
Down the street, a tank careered around a corner, nearly running over a policeman on a motorcycle and headed for the pristine residential complex known as Lippoland. The dream of James Riady -- the Indonesian businessman who befriended President Clinton in Arkansas and became a major contributor to the Democratic Party -- to copy a planned American community in Indonesia has turned into a surreal vision.
On Thursday, lower class Indonesians rioted and looted here and across the rest of the city. They burst through fences circling shantytowns and attacked the mall, breaking what they could and stealing what they wanted. Then they set it on fire -- essentially torching the First World aspirations of an upper class deeply out of touch with the majority of the population in a country with one of the world's biggest rifts between the rich and the poor. Thirty people died in the fires at the Megamall.
Before the riots, most customers at the Megamall, which housed a bowling alley, ice-skating rink and businesses such as Wal-Mart, Pizza Hut, Ace Hardware and Dunkin Donuts, were wealthy ethnic Chinese, expatriates and those who had benefited from the Suharto government's system of "crony capitalism."
"It wasn't good," said H.B. Alcaff, a local journalist. "The conditions of the economics of this mall, the charges and prices for all of the things were higher and higher for my people in Indonesia."
Inflation has skyrocketed since the economic crisis hit and the value of the currency, the rupiah, has plunged 80 percent. More than 8 million people have lost their jobs and millions more stand to be out of work because so many foreign companies have evacuated their expatriate staff and trimmed operations since rioting Thursday.
The mall and residential complex here are operated by the Riady family's Lippo Group. James Riady admired America and attempted to bring a little piece of it back to Indonesia.
The residential complex has American colonial-style homes with manicured lawns and basketball courts at the ends of their driveways. Colorful banners line the streets and the red-and-white Indonesian flag flies in front of most homes. A school, which had several American teachers before the evacuation, and a golf course are a bike ride away.
"I think America stands for many, many good things that many Asians can easily relate to," Riady said in an interview last February. "And during the times that I was there I learned a lot . . . . America is very good in terms of risk identification, risk recognition, risk management."
But few people were prepared for Thursday's violence -- the worst Indonesia has seen since President Suharto came to power 32 years ago. About 500 people died in the rioting, most of them in fires.
"This is justice," said a German expatriate, who lives at Lippoland, as he pedaled up to the mall on his purple bicycle to survey the damage. "If they stay and try to take all the goods and they set it on fire and the people inside get burned, it's an immediate act of God in my opinion. The people . . . want to get things the easy way by stealing and borrowing."
That attitude is shared by many of the upper-class Indonesians who have fled or are making preparations to leave -- even though few individuals were targeted in the violence. It was aimed mainly at property, especially that belonging to businesses connected with the Suharto family or ethnic Chinese, such as Riady, who control an estimated 70 percent of the country's private wealth. Riady, who was at a Hong Kong golf tournament, has a helicopter pad at his Lippoland home.
"I had my passport in my front pocket and all my jewelry in my purse," said a public relations manager for Lippo, speaking of the panic that began with Thursday's looting.
"We had our guns out," she said. "We are allowed to shoot [looters] if they step one foot on our property -- the television said so."
The people living at Lippoland were so afraid that residents of about 100 houses paid the equivalent of $10 each to buy protection from the military, according to the German expatriate.
"The Chinese, they intended to rent a tank but it wasn't available," he said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company