Sunday, July 4, 2010

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.

In May 1998, during two deadly days of racially fueled mayhem, rioters killed 1,000 people and raped 87 women, most of Chinese descent. Others cowered in their homes as the rape squads, reportedly led by army thugs, roamed the streets of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

Many of the 5 million ethnic Chinese here, who represent a scant 2% of the population in this predominantly Muslim nation of 248 million, have for years awaited the results of a government investigation of the attacks. Twelve years later, no arrests have been made. The inquiry stalled years ago when investigators said they failed to find hard evidence of military involvement. The Indonesian government has recently suggested that it will no longer pursue the matter, despite lingering suspicions that the riots were instigated by soldiers influenced by the nation's political leadership.

Without an official report to the contrary, many Indonesians question whether the rapes even occurred. For ethnic Chinese, long viewed as scapegoats for Indonesia's economic woes, life after the 1998 riots has been bittersweet. On one hand, more Chinese Indonesians have run for public office and a number of discriminatory laws have been repealed. Yet many still feel like unwanted outsiders, their community cast as a greedy merchant class with allegiances to Indonesia and China.

Without question, analysts say, there has been progress since the ouster of President Suharto, whose government required ethnic Chinese to adopt Indonesian names and banned Chinese characters and festivals. After the dictator was forced from office in 1998, the year of the riots that many believe he fomented, Indonesia has encouraged the spread of Chinese culture.

Many say the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has further marginalized ethnic Chinese. In one rural province, clerics recently disrupted a Chinese parade, arguing that the noise of firecrackers and running dragons interfered with Muslim prayer rites.
Discrimination against ethnic Chinese here dates back centuries to the Dutch colonial era, when thousands were killed or forced into ghettos. Ethnic Chinese were also attacked in the Indonesian government's anti-communist purges of the mid-1960s.

In the 1980s came calls for Suharto to rein in numerous large Chinese business conglomerates that many argued controlled the economy. But while most ethnic Chinese were considered to be members of the wealthy merchant class, many were actually small-business men, shopkeepers or traders.

During the 1998 Asian financial crisis, when mobs took to the streets and attacked ethnic Chinese they blamed for the economic downturn. Many analysts believe Suharto encouraged the violence to take the pressure off his government for the loss of jobs and rising prices.

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.

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