Indonesia: Aliens in their own Country

1998

Associate Professor Howard Dick

The horrific violence against citizens of Chinese descent has cast a very dark shadow over political reform in Indonesia. Optimism that economic development and growth of a middle class were helping to narrow the ethnic divide has been shattered by the wave of anti-Chinese progroms in Medan, Jakarta, Solo and in many smaller towns. Despite its Russian origin, progrom is the correct term. Until Medan, Jakarta and Solo there was still room for complacency that violence was only against property, that no Chinese had been killed. No longer. An estimated 1200 people have lost their lives. Women and children were deliberately burned alive in their houses. Women were systematically raped. These were acts of savagery. Why did it happen? A spontaneous upwelling of suppressed racial antagonism across the archipelago can be dismissed as inconsistent with the facts. Crowds were able to move around by truck through blockaded streets. Agitators with suspiciously military bearing were observed and filmed. Houses were systematically marked. Soldiers and police watched while houses were burned and people murdered. Commentator Ariel Heryanto has described it pungently as state-sponsored violence. But no investigation has yet been announced of who planned it and who carried it out. What next? President Habibie's conciliatory gestures will not suffice nor, on their own, will concrete policy measures such as raising quotas for ethnic Chinese students at state universities from 10 to 15 per cent. Bitter at the betrayal, the Chinese are fearful and angry. The immediate loss will be economic. Businessmen are beginning to return, but many are leaving their families behind. They will not be enthusiastic about investing in Indonesia. They will remit what funds they can to build up assets overseas, in Singapore, Australia and Canada. The long-term loss will be not only a poorer but also a morally crippled nation. Indonesia is the only one of the founding ASEAN countries that has yet to become a multiracial society. Once a Chinese, always a Chinese. However many generations a Chinese family has lived in Indonesia, whether rich or poor, university educated or illiterate, Indonesian-speaking, with Indonesian name, with Indonesian nationality - none of these, singly or in combination, makes its members equal citizens of Indonesia. And yet there are some signs of hope. Like the May 1969 riots in Malaysia, May 1998 could become a turning point. As the facts become known, especially the violence against women and children, informed Indonesians are reacting with disgust. Popular leaders such as Amien Rais, Gus Dur and Megawati have condemned the atrocities. President Habibie and General Wiranto have spoken, and may yet act decisively. The obsession with national unity would nowhere be better focused.

WATCHPOINT: Popular outrage may force the Indonesian government to investigae crimes against minorities.

 

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