Indonesia crisis: Chinese suffer for their success as mobs target the `Jews of the East'

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The Independent Online
CHINESE families are flocking to Indonesian airports, desperate to flee as their shops and homes are looted and burned to the ground. Their fears are understandable - being an ethnic Chinese in Indonesia today is to be in a state of mortal danger.

Yet again, the Chinese are the scapegoat for the problems of a South- East Asian nation in trouble. In Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, tiny Brunei and Vietnam - where they provided the backbone of the "boat people" exodus - Chinese communities have been subject to persecution. Partly it is because they are different, partly because they are successful and, in some cases, because they have acted as revolutionaries in their adopted countries.

The comparison with the European Jews is striking. Ironically it was in Thailand, where the Chinese are most assimilated, that the term "Jews of the East" was coined by King Vajiravudh in a vitriolic racist essay written in 1915.

In Indonesia, where the Chinese are no more than 3 per cent of the population, the well-established Chinese community has provided the scapegoat both for popular discontent and the cynical manipulation of governments seeking to deflect the blame for their mismanagement.

In the present crisis the government of President Suharto has done little to protect the Chinese. Although he is closely associated with a number of prominent Chinese businessmen it is suspected that he would be content to let the Chinese bear the brunt of popular discontent with his regime.

Historically, the problems in Indonesia were exacerbated by Peking in 1959, which launched a campaign to repatriate its compatriots. Suffering discrimination in their adopted home, many Indonesian Chinese answered the call, leaving with little more than the clothes they were wearing. The wave of immigration reinforced the feeling that the Chinese were not really Indonesian.

The 1965 coup which brought President Suharto to power made matters worse as the Chinese were seen as allies of the local Communist Party. Some were indeed Communists but most were not, though they were not spared in the bloodbath which followed. Anti-Chinese sentiment peaked in 1966, particularly in northern Sumatra, where it is again strong today. No one knows how many Chinese were killed in rioting but the massacres have left a lasting impression on the community, which fears that history will repeat itself.

In Indonesia, as elsewhere in South-East Asia, the Chinese have changed their names to blend in with the rest of the population. But everyone seems to know who is Chinese. The high-profile businessmen are particularly well known for being Chinese. Not only do they give the impression that the whole community is rich, but their businesses tend to be concentrated in retailing and banking, sectors which have the most direct connection with the public at large.

In Malaysia, discrimination against Chinese business is institutionalised in policies which give preference to the supposedly indigenous people, although it is questionable whether the majority Malay population is that much more indigenous than the Chinese. Chinese businesses have to take in indigenous partners and are in effect barred from obtaining most government contracts. The government is now reconsidering this policy, which appears to be hampering economic growth.

Both Thailand and the Philippines were early advocates of discrimination against Chinese business activity. Yet this has not prevented Chinese businessmen from emerging as the most powerful players in the business world of these countries. In the Philippines, wealthy Chinese are frequently the targets of kidnappers. Opponents of one candidate in the recent presidential election tried to get him banned on grounds of his Chinese ancestry.

The Chinese have been denied citizenship rights in Brunei, although some prominent members of the community have got round the ban by converting to Islam. The much despised Burmese regime, too, often tries its hand at anti-Chinese racism.

Unpopular regimes have some reason to fear the Chinese because they have often led revolutionary movements in Asia.

Jose Rizal, hero of the Philippine independence movement, was primarily of Chinese descent. The leadership of the Communist Party in Malaysia was predominantly Chinese and the leaders of the movement which split the Malaysian federation were Chinese. Indeed, they created a predominantly Chinese state next door in the form of Singapore.