Indonesia crisis: Chinatown counts the cost of mob's racist vendetta

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The Independent Online
SCAVENGERS were out yesterday, picking their way through the charred ruins of the City hotel in the heart of Jakarta's Chinatown. They were among the few residents who got something positive from the carnage wrought on this area, which was torched during last week's riots.

A man dangling an iron bar, who says he is a security guard at the hotel, thinks the Chinese part-owners of the hotel have fled to Singapore.

"It's very bad for the Chinese," he remarks with what sounds like a certain satisfaction. "Two Chinese hanged themselves after their shops were looted and they were bankrupt."

Having just about survived last week's rampage, the Chinese in Glodok were nervously waiting to see what would happen in the wake of yesterday's expected massive demonstration in the capital. When it failed to materialise, a collective wave of relief swept through Chinatown.

In the courtyard of the Dhasma Bhakti Chinese Temple a group of middle- aged and elderly Chinese are huddled around a portable radio listening intently to the BBC's Mandarin Chinese news.

"Of course we're afraid," says the man holding the radio. "It could happen again." He would not give his name. "It's too dangerous."

They are wary of a foreign reporter and an Indonesian translator, even though I live in Hong Kong. "Do you speak Cantonese?" asks a man who has hitherto been silent. We continue in faltering Cantonese and then the atmosphere lifts.

The Chinese have worked so hard to become Indonesian but once again they are being turned into aliens in their own home.

While a great political reform movement grips the country they provide an outlet for the mobs who have been swept into the movement but who use it to vent their frustration about being poor. Though they make up only about 3 per cent of the population, the Chinese are still a focus for anger.

To the poor who calmly plundered their shops, they are a soft target among the rich who have exploited them.

Like most of the city's ethnic Chinese, the group at the temple own small businesses. All of these businesses were burned down or looted last week.

I ask one man how much he has lost. "I can't tell you. I never think about the loss," he replies. "The only important thing is that I'm safe."

Outside the temple a young Chinese man, who identifies himself as Tony, says he worked for an electronics shop which was torched, leaving the remainder of the stock to be cleaned out by looters.

"We lost maybe a trillion," he says, referring to the sum of money calculated in Indonesia's fast-shrinking currency. In sterling terms this translates to a low six-figure amount.

Tony has no idea when he will get back to work, or if the electronics shop will ever reopen.

His friends lounging around him nodded their heads with an air of resignation. They, too, have seen their workplaces burned to the ground.

"I don't know how we're going to recover," said one man. "I just pray to God and hope."

Across the city in the middle-class Pluit district, which is predominantly Chinese, the atmosphere is very different. There are no burnt-out buildings or piles of broken glass from smashed windows.

"We had no looting here," says the manager of the Singapore restaurant, "the only problem was some theft from houses of people who have fled."

The residents of Pluit have sealed off their area with makeshift barricades. At the entrances stand groups of stick-bearing local vigilantes accompanied by police and soldiers. It is safety of a kind, but not security.