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Anti-Chinese sentiments raise specter of bloody past

Recent political rally in Jakarta reminds locals of 1998 and mid 1960s atrocities
Anti-Chinese sentiments raise specter of bloody past

An angry Indonesian mob burns cars and Chinese shops as rioters plunder shops in Jakarta in May 1998 anti-Chinese riots which brought terror to the Indonesian capital and which reportedly left more than 1,500 people dead. (Photo by AFP)


Published: December 29, 2016 05:58 PM GMT
Updated: December 26, 2016 04:33 AM GMT

(UCAN Series: Best of 2016)

Theresia Stefanus was only nine when anti-Chinese riots rocked Indonesia in May 1998, she could only stay at home with her family in the Chinatown area of Mangga Besar in West Jakarta.

"I was so frightened. So many people passed through my parents' house," the 29-year-old Protestant woman of Chinese descent told ucanews.com.

The riots followed a massive political rally in Jakarta with thousands of people wanting to oust former president Soeharto. The unrest spiraled out of control, and mobs began targeting properties and business owned by Chinese Indonesians.

More than 1,500 people were reportedly killed. There were also dozens of documented accounts of Chinese Indonesian girls being raped. The 1998 incident was a chilling reminder of the massacres of the mid 1960s that targeted Chinese Indonesians and leftists in which between 500,000 and 2 million people were killed.

"Thanks be to God, none of my family became victims," she said.

Still, those riots left her with a feeling of worry.

"There's a slight trauma," she added.

Stefanus' anxiety surfaced again on Nov. 4 when mobs destroyed and looted convenience stores in Penjaringan, North Jakarta, after a rally against Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama spun out of control

The mob descended on Gedong Panjang Street, a predominately Indonesian Chinese area, and occupied the street for seven hours until police forcibly removed them.

An estimated 150,000 Muslim hardliners took part in the rally at Istiqlal Mosque in Central Jakarta to demand the prosecution of the governor, a Protestant of Chinese descent known as Ahok, for alleged blasphemy.

The allegation surfaced in early October after a video in which he allegedly insulted the Quran, went viral on the internet. On Nov. 16, police named him as a blasphemy suspect.

Police said the violence and looting had nothing to do with the rally. The mob were denizens from surrounding areas that used the rally as a pretext to create violence and hate.

But for Stefanus, deputy chairwoman of the Jakarta-based Young Generation of Indonesians of Chinese Descent, both the rally and violence that followed were frightening.

"A repeat of the May 1998 tragedy didn't happen. But I was worried," she said.


Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, walks next to embattled Christian Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as ‘Ahok' at the presidential palace in Jakarta, in this file photo. The Jakarta governor has been named a suspect in a blasphemy case after Muslim hardliners staged a rally in Jakarta on Nov. 4. (Photo by AFP)


A deep fear

Shelvi Kusumawardani, a 28-year-old Muslim waitress at a meatball soup restaurant on the same street was also concerned. She and her colleagues quickly closed the outlet and rushed to a dormitory located behind it when the mobs invaded.

"I was so scared. I heard people breaking the restaurant's glass door. But I didn't hear them saying anything," she told ucanews.com.  

"It was the first time something like this had happened since the May 1998 tragedy. I was afraid the tragedy would repeat itself," she said.

The restaurant was among 10 businesses reportedly ransacked. Others included two convenience stores and a small food stall.

The food stall's owner, Muhammad Ruslani, joined others in hiding as wooden tables and chairs at his food stall were burned and glass pantries were smashed by the mob.

"I decided to hide. I chose to save my life," he said.

The 40-year-old Muslim estimated his losses at 10 million rupiah (US$740).

Police have so far named 13 suspects over the looting and a further 16 are on a wanted list.


Trauma from May 1998 tragedy

Ricardi S. Adnan, a sociologist from the University of Indonesia, said trauma from the May 1998 tragedy was still significant.

While most people at the rally remained focused on its main goal, the alleged blasphemy, crowds can be breeding grounds for out-of-control incidents, he said.

"In a crowd situation, there is always a risk of actions that are beyond control, as well as other parties who take advantage of a violent situation for their own gain," he told The Jakarta Post.

Mona Lohanda, a historian at the Indonesian National Archives, believed the May 1998 tragedy would not be repeated as long as the government and security forces can maintain peace.

"Police are much better now in dealing with protesters. Under former president Soeharto, many military personnel were overtly anti-Christian," she told ucanews.com.


The start of anti-Chinese feelings

Discrimination against the Chinese in Indonesia stretches back centuries and began in 1740, author Benny G. Setiono, a 73-year-old Chinese Indonesian, claims in his book Tionghoa Dalam Pusaran Politik (Chinese in Political Vortex),

That year, during the Dutch colonial era, at least 10,000 Chinese were massacred in Batavia (now Jakarta).

In 1946, at least 600 Chinese allegedly working for the Dutch were killed. In 1959, then President Soekarno issued a decree banning foreigners, including ethnic Chinese who also held citizenship in China and Taiwan, from doing business in the countryside. As a result, more than 136,000 Chinese had to close their businesses and return to China.

After a failed coup in 1965, Indonesia's Chinese community were caught up in a wave of anti-Communism that resulted in one of the darkest periods in the nations history as up to 2 million Chinese were killed by both authorities and lynch mobs. In 1967, then President Soeharto issued a decree prohibiting Chinese New Year celebrations.

"Discrimination against the Chinese had a long history," Setiono told ucanews.com.

However, such discrimination by the state has long gone and among the public it has shrunk, he said.

"Still, radical groups use anti-Chinese sentiments as a tool to help them gain power," he added.

Chinese Indonesians should not be targeted as they don't have significant power, he said mentioning Ahok as an example.

"He's too small. The main target isn't him but the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia. This state is going to be replaced with an Islamic one," he predicted.

Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, agrees that Ahok is being used as a trigger.

"The goal is much bigger. The problem is that he's non-Muslim and of Chinese descent," he said.

Anti-Chinese sentiments can be dangerous if mixed with religious sentiments, he warned.

"If a difference such as ethnicity meets with poverty and inequality, it can cause an extraordinary protest. This is a challenge for all of us."


Published Nov. 28, 2016

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