Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia search for place in society
Economically vital minority puts hope in new leadership
By Gregg Jones / The Dallas Morning News
JAKARTA, Indonesia - Aken Chandarn was ready to die alongside his wife when
the anti-Chinese mobs stopped outside his Chinatown furniture shop at the
height of the Jakarta riots two weeks ago.
The mob stoned his metal shutters and yelled for him to come out. But the
crowd gave up after a few minutes and moved on to easier prey.
On Sunday, Mr. Chandarn considered himself lucky as he and other Chinatown
business owners prepared to open for the first time since Indonesia's
latest explosion of anti-government and anti-Chinese anger left many parts
of the capital in ruins.
"Because they knew there were people inside my shop, they didn't burn it
down," said Mr. Chandarn, who is ethnic Chinese, calmly explaining the
quirky etiquette of Indonesia's street mobs.
Restoring the confidence of Indonesia's economically vital Chinese minority
is just one of the many challenges awaiting new President B.J. Habibie, who
last week succeeded his mentor Suharto, the strongman who ruled Indonesia
for 32 years.
After two centuries of being the economic whipping boy of the Indonesian
masses, the ethnic Chinese community has more than a passing interest in
the success or failure of Mr. Habibie.
"I'm worried because if the economy doesn't get better and the rupiah
doesn't get stronger, then in one month's time there will be another riot,"
Mr. Chandarn said, referring to the Indonesian currency.
One of his neighbors, 35-year-old Leni Wijaya, added: "We're praying that
Habibie will succeed."
With a new president in power, peace ruled the streets of Jakarta on
Sunday, and the soldiers sent to restore order were returning to the
barracks. The wealthy ethnic Chinese who could afford to ride out the
bloody riots in Hong Kong or Singapore were streaming back into Indonesia.
Even along Chinatown's burned and battered Gajah Mada boulevard, a work
crew was busy putting in new glass at a building badly damaged in the riots.
But the riots, along with the rumors that the Suharto regime offered up the
ethnic Chinese as a target to the disgruntled masses, have left the Chinese
community struggling once again to answer the question of whether there is
any place for them in Indonesian society.
"We're still worried about the riots," said businessman Antonius Djunadi,
33. "I hope that Habibie will improve the social gap between Indonesians
and the Chinese so there won't be so much resentment."
That resentment toward the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia has its roots in the
privileges bestowed upon ethnic Chinese by the Dutch during their colonial
rule of Indonesia. But the history of Indonesia's Chinese population is
much more complicated.
Dutch efforts to deport unemployed Chinese in 1740 resulted in unrest,
riots and the slaughter of between 5,000 and 10,000 Chinese in Jakarta
alone by Dutch forces.
By the time Indonesia became independent in 1945, the country's Chinese had
become a dominant force in its commerce. Indonesia's modern "masalah Cina,"
or Chinese problem, stems from the fact that ethnic Chinese make up only
about 3 percent of the population, yet control 80 percent of the wealth.
Middle-class Chinese point out that a handful of huge Chinese-owned
conglomerates actually dominate the economy - not the millions of ordinary
ethnic Chinese like Mr. Chandarn and the shopkeepers of Gajah Mada.
But that has done little to change public perceptions of the Chinese, who
became the periodic target of attacks and riots by indigenous Indonesians.
Johnni Lesmana, 55, was one of the victims in the latest riots. His drug
store was burned by a mob in a Jakarta suburb, and the cart he used to
peddle Chinese and Western remedies on the streets of Chinatown was also
"These people are thieves, you know," said Mr. Lesmana, jumping up from his
stool and walking in agitated circles as he talked. "This is a stupid
mentality. Some of these people even raped Chinese women."
But leaving Indonesia is not an option for middle-class merchants like Mr.
Lesmana, who don't have the fabulous wealth of the conglomerate owners but
who always seem to bear the brunt of the violent resentment.
"I feel the same way as I did in 1965," said Mr. Lesmana, referring to the
year when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese were killed alongside
political activists in the aftermath of Suharto's rise to power. "It's so
scary. Those Chinese with money have gone abroad. Those who don't stay here
and wait to die."
Mr. Chandarn, 65, agreed. "No money, you die," he said, cutting loose with
a gallows-humor laugh as he helped Mr. Lesmana and a carpenter put the
finishing touches on a new wooden cart that will be his livelihood until he
can get a loan to reopen his burned drug store.
Up and down the streets of Chinatown, the broken glass and burned-out
buildings are testament to the frustrations directed at the Chinese. A
block from Mr. Chandarn's shop is the blackened shell of the Glodok Hotel,
where 10 looters died in fires set by other looters; down the street in the
other direction is a looted shopping center and department store.
Fifteen-year-old Tony - he would give only his first name - was in class at
Budimulia High School, a private Catholic high school for ethnic Chinese
children, when the rioting began to spread into Chinatown on May 14.
Parents rushed to pick up their children, but Tony was left waiting for a
ride until 11:30 a.m., he said.
Tony watched the violence and looting unfold as he peeked through a tiny
fourth-floor ventilation window. It was a horrifying sight, he said.
"People resent the fact that Chinese are more successful," he said.
The riots have had a painful impact on Tony and his family, he said.
"I'm disappointed and sad about what happened, and my parents are
disappointed," he said. "It makes us feel like a minority, like we're
Mari Pangestu, one of Indonesian's most prominent economists, said Sunday
that the riots made her feel like a Chinese-Indonesian - rather than an
Indonesian - for the first time in her life.
A seventh-generation Chinese-Indonesian, Ms. Pangestu has never identified
much with her Chinese heritage. She grew up speaking Indonesian with her
parents, not Chinese. Indonesian culture, not Chinese, was the rule at home.
"We don't feel Chinese at all because we don't have any Chinese cultural
background," said Ms. Pangestu, who lives in a posh south Jakarta suburb,
miles away from the city's Chinatown.
Since she never identified much with the country's Chinese community, Ms.
Pangestu also never felt the fear that many ethnic Chinese feel when unrest
begins to simmer and riots break out in Indonesia. At least not until two
weeks ago, when mobs started searching cars en route to the airport to see
if the occupants were Chinese.
"For the first time, it hit me," she said. "I felt Chinese."
After a week of fear and dramatic political developments, the Sunday
evening mass was full at Jakarta's old Catholic cathedral, where many
Chinese worship. Sparrows fluttered beneath the cathedral's high ceiling in
the steamy twilight. A soldier in camouflage fatigues crossed himself and
slipped into an empty seat.
Prayers from Indonesia's largest mosque across the street wafted through
the air, serving as a reminder that even in their place of worship, ethnic
Chinese in Indonesia still can't escape the dominance of the Muslim majority.
Father Sugiri Van Den Heuvel, the parish priest, who has spent the past 46
years in Indonesia, said he has never witnessed anything like the
destruction wrought on his parish two weeks ago.
"Some lost their shops and homes. Some lost their relatives. Some were
murdered," he said. "This was done against people just because they were