Indonesia minority fears violence 

Two decades since the fall of Indonesia’s dictator Muhammad Suharto, the treatment of the affluent ethnic-Chinese community remains a sensitive issue. 

Suharto’s bans on Chinese culture and language were lifted in 2001 and the Lunar New Year is now an official holiday but the community of 3 million still faces resentment and fears another pogrom. 

Suharto took power following the massacre in 1965-6 of more than a million alleged communists and ethnic Chinese. 

Last year the imprisonment of Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama, an ethnic-Chinese Christian known as Ahok, on blasphemy charges and the recent bombing attacks on Christians in Surabaya, have raised concerns. 

The ethnic Chinese are mostly Christians in the 90-per-cent Muslim archipelago. 

“After Ahok and the attacks in Surabaya, of course, I feel very nervous about the future of Indonesia,” said Sylvie Tanaga of the Urban and Regional Development Institute in Jakarta.

In the riots of 1998, amid food shortages, a plunging rupiah and mass unemployment, anti-Chinese riots were seen across the country. They specifically targeted Chinese women, sparked by rumours that the community was hoarding rice. At least 1,000 people were killed.

In the final days of Suharto, women hid in their homes for days as rape squads, reportedly led by soldiers, toured Jakarta’s streets.

Many died trapped in burning buildings as mobs raided Chinese-owned stores and set fire to cars as the government fell.

Ayu Puspita was 30 when mobs targeted Chinese-owned shops in Jakarta. 

“It was so chaotic. Cars were being burned, motorcycles were toppled over. It was just so scary,” said Puspita, who has a restaurant in Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown.

Subianto, 67, who also works in Glodok, said: “There were no police, no soldiers. People were looting everywhere. Trucks were coming to steal things.”

Nothing has changed to remove the association between wealth and the ethnic Chinese. 

Of the top 10 richest Indonesians, nine are ethnic Chinese, according to Forbes, while rich and influential ethnic Chinese dominate Indonesian politics but do not hold elected office.

President Joko Widodo‘s Harvard-educated Tom Lembong, chairman of the Investment Coordinating Board, helps attract foreign investment. In 2015, when preparation for the Jakarta Asian Games fell behind schedule, Erick Thohir, the brother of billionaire Garibaldi Thohir, was brought in to deliver the event. When Widodo launched his US$300-billion tax amnesty, Mochtar Riady, Indonesia’s ninth richest man, was asked to tell the international community that Indonesia was a safe place to invest with a reliable tax regime.


Glodok. Picture credit: Flickr