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In Indonesia, 1998 violence against ethnic Chinese remains unaddressed

Twelve years after the ouster of President Suharto, who was believed to have encouraged racial attacks, ethnic Chinese have seen their lot improve but many say they are still treated like outsiders.

July 04, 2010|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

She never found him. "I only have his burned clothes," she said, her voice breaking.

For years, Indonesia was viewed as a perilous place for ethnic Chinese. In 2004, a U.S. court granted political asylum to an Indonesian national of Chinese descent who claimed that a return to her homeland would amount to a death sentence. She was just one among the tens of thousands of Chinese Indonesians who have fled the country.

Even now, as ethnic Chinese citizens run for office, prejudices continue.

Sofyan Tan was recently defeated in a run for mayor in the city of Medan, the capital of northern Sumatra. In an interview, the city's first Chinese Indonesian political candidate said opponents waged a campaign to scare voters into believing he would sell the nation to China.

"More hard work is required to show that leadership cannot be based on race and religion," he said.

Activists say there are new efforts at national healing. Prabowo Subianto, the former son-in-law of Suharto, met last summer with ethnic Chinese to publicly explain for the first time that he was not involved in the mayhem.

"Many are still ambivalent about his story," said Jemma Purdey, a research fellow at the Center of Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University in Australia. "But if you meet someone and they tell you straight to your face they didn't have part in things, you have to respect that."

Last fall, government officials also met with historians to draft language for Indonesian school textbooks acknowledging that the anti-ethnic Chinese bloodshed actually happened.

"The scar from that violence remains," said Yentriyani, the commission leader. "How much Indonesians want to heal it, depends on who you talk to."

For now, Ruminah isn't taking any chances about the return of ethnic violence. She runs her beauty shop out of her home, where she feels more secure.

She has seen Muslim youths break off a relationship with her college-age daughter once they learn of her Chinese roots. And she misses her son, who never got the chance to come to terms with his Chinese heritage.

Still, she says, she won't follow the ethnic Chinese who have fled Indonesia since the riots.

"I'm not ashamed of who I am," she said. "This is my country. Where else can I go?"

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