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Indonesia's Chinese Fearful of Backlash

Asia: Once again, tiny yet wealthy minority seen as scapegoat for crisis.

January 31, 1998|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JEMBER, Indonesia — As the sickle of a new moon pierced the sky, signaling the beginning of the Chinese Lunar New Year, shopkeeper Wei Tang Kai did not dare celebrate. Here in the world's largest Islamic nation, it is against the law to publicly commemorate the holiday, display Chinese-language signboards or own Chinese books.

But even more than the police, Wei fears his neighbors.

A little more than a week ago, hundreds of men from outlying villages, armed with machetes, appeared on his shop-lined street, accusing the Chinese merchants there of hoarding goods and overcharging during Indonesia's worst economic crisis in decades. The crowd turned into a looting mob. Men pulled bolts of cloth from the store across the street and set them ablaze; a grocery was torched; one woman had her arm cut off.

Wei's family and store escaped harm, but he is still terrified.

"Every time things get more expensive, they turn against the Chinese, even though this is a national crisis. We get blamed for everything," he said, huddled behind tall shelves in the back of his dried food store.

'I'm Afraid They're Going to Kill Me'

Hidden from the eyes of his customers, the backs of the shelves are adorned with posters of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and, another version of paradise, a cityscape of Hong Kong.

A Chinese Christian in a Muslim stronghold, his community is tiny, its protectors are few.

"I'm afraid they're going to kill me," he said of the Muslim majority. "One day they'll break in here and slit my throat."

From the dark back rooms of stores in Jember, a town on the eastern end of Java, to the boardrooms of billionaires in the capital, Jakarta, ethnic Chinese Indonesians are nervously preparing for the anti-Chinese backlash that often comes with times of tension here.

Laws restricting Chinese culture were imposed, the government says, to promote assimilation and to protect Chinese Indonesians after an estimated half a million were killed in anti-Communist riots in 1965. The laws are also meant to shield them from others' resentment: Ethnic Chinese make up only about 3% of Indonesia's mostly Muslim population, but they dominate the country's economy. Their success in business--and absence from politics and the military--makes them visible and vulnerable targets as frustrations mount over Indonesia's economic crisis.

In recent weeks, as the rupiah dove and food prices quadrupled, riots erupted in five different towns on Java, most targeted at Chinese shop owners. The military is on full alert across the country, and on Wednesday night, while residents of Jakarta's tiny Chinatown burned incense at a cluster of neighborhood temples in quiet defiance and wished for better fortunes in the Year of the Tiger, armored vehicles rumbled through the streets in warning.

'Any Little Thing Can Trigger Off a Riot'

"Of course I am scared," said a tailor, 62, standing in the flickering light of dozens of giant good-luck candles inside one temple. He wants to join his Chinese-born wife who is living in Hong Kong because she was not allowed to immigrate to Indonesia. "But I don't have enough money to go anywhere."

Of those who do, the business elite who have prospered as partners of President Suharto and his inner circle, many are quietly making preparations to leave. When workers return to their jobs after the holidays--which Muslims and Chinese celebrate in their own ways, as Ramadan and the Lunar New Year, respectively--many will not receive a much-needed annual bonus. Some won't even get jobs back.

The combination of rising unemployment and rising prices makes riots probable.

"Any time there is general unrest, any little thing can trigger off a riot," said Mely Tan, an expert on Chinese in Southeast Asia who was one of Indonesia's few Chinese civil servants. "And the first hit are always the Chinese."

In Jakarta, classrooms at private schools suddenly have more empty seats, and planes to Singapore have none, as executives send their money and children out of the country.

"This is the price of success here," said one Chinese executive, who added that he had bundled his family off to Singapore on an open-ended ticket. "You have to expect to be a scapegoat."

Official efforts at bridging ethnic and religious differences between Indonesia's diverse groups have been undermined by military, political and religious leaders who play up differences.

"This causes me some dismay," said Juwono Sudarsono, vice governor of the National Resilience Institute and the head of a group to build national unity. "They are like the right wing in America pointing to 'Jewish conspirators' on Wall Street."

To inflame tensions is not hard, he said. The rifts have roots reaching back 200 years. Since Dutch colonialists began using Chinese traders as go-betweens with indigenous Indonesians who believed that business was beneath them, the Chinese have steadily built an economic advantage. They established monopolies on salt and opium and kept out of politics.

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