Chinese Indonesians’ fear grows Mobs attack shops, homes in West Java

Washington Times, Feb. 16, 1998

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Mobs attacked Chinese-owned businesses in a city east of the capital yesterday, adding to the fears of ethnic Chinese who believe they are being made scapegoats for Indonesia's economic turmoil.

"Everybody has a passport and a ticket on their bodies at all times," said one Chinese businessman. "Everybody is ready to leave at a moment's notice."

Yesterday's attack in West Java was just the latest in a series of sporadic riots over the past few weeks that have damaged or destroyed dozens of shops owned by ethnic Chinese.

At the same time, police in Jakarta continue to interrogate leading ethnic Chinese in connection with a minor bomb blast in a cheap hotel last month.

Officials claim an e-mail message found at the site indicates businessman Sofjan Wanandi, chairman of one of the country's largest conglomerates, has helped to finance an outlawed political party accused of being linked to the banned Communist Party.

The message also implicates Mr. Wanandi's brother, who heads a think tank critical of the government, and the editor of a leading Jakarta newspaper, the officials say.

In the latest violence yesterday, thousands of people took part in torching or damaging shops and homes in the West Java district of Majalengka, Deutsche Presse Agentur reported.

The German news agency said residents in the area 125 miles east of Jakarta described the situation as "critical."

"Almost all shops owned by ethnic Chinese were set ablaze by the mobs," said one resident, Ehlen Sahlan, who was reached by telephone from the capital. He said it was "more violent than . . . the unrest a few days ago," when riots broke out Thursday in a neighboring district.

Though the violence so far has been sporadic and disorganized, it brings frightening memories to many Indonesian Chinese of the mass bloodletting in the mid-1960s that presaged establishment of President Suharto's "New Order" government. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese and suspected Communists were massacred at that time.

Suharto did nothing to help when he warned last week that "certain groups {of} irresponsible people" were seeking to destroy the economy and undermine his regime.

And at a recent gathering of Muslim leaders and military officers, Gen. Prabowo Subianto, Suharto's son-in-law, distributed copies of a book about Chinese domination of Asia's economy titled "Lords of the Rim."

"Even my Muslim boss is saying this is exactly what started the violence in '65," said a worried Indonesian Chinese executive.

Ethnic Chinese do in fact dominate Indonesia's economy, even though they account for just 3 percent of its 200 million-plus population. Chinese families own all but a few of the largest conglomerates and even at the village level, most shop owners are ethnic Chinese.

With inflation soaring and basic commodities becoming scarce, angry peasants are lashing out at those perceived to be profiting.

"This type of victimization has occurred for many generations," said Juwono Sudarsono of the National Resilience Institute, the military's think tank.

"People assume the Chinese trader is hoarding or unfairly raising prices, and the Chinese become targets for a riot when, in fact, the reason for the price rise is poor distribution of the goods."

An Indonesian-born Chinese executive who is an American citizen pointed out that the Chinese are also being hurt by the crisis.

"Most Chinese are small traders, barely getting by. This kills their businesses too. And even the conglomerates are going bankrupt because of massive offshore debt."

Ethnic Chinese have historically filled an uneasy and contradictory place in Indonesian society. Chinese traders, like Suharto pal Bob Hasan, forged economic alliances with key military officers and helped finance the overthrow of the Sukarno regime.

Those partnerships produced the choice government contracts on which today's Chinese-owned conglomerates were built. Yet at the same time, ethnic Chinese have been subject to institutionalized discrimination that has forced them to adopt non-Chinese names. Even the use of spoken or written Chinese was banned until recently.

Now the political alliances that helped make the top Chinese families rich are making the Chinese community as a whole the target of growing middle-class resentment toward the Suharto regime and what many Indonesians are calling "crony capitalism."

"A lot of people are hungry, angry and confused," said the Indonesian-born Chinese-American. "They've lost their jobs. Their businesses have collapsed. They have to strike out somewhere. We're an easy target.

Photo, Rioters in the West Java town of Ciasem carry away goods looted from businesses owned by ethnic Chinese., By Reuters


Copyright Washington Times Library Feb 16, 1998

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