Indonesia's Chinese hear echoes of catastrophe

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The Independent Online
Ethic tension is rising in Indonesia, with numerous attacks on Chinese shopkeepers. Thirty years ago, countless ethnic Chinese died in an outbreak of communal violence. Our correspondent considers whether the current economic crisis could cause similar strife .

"It's all quite normal now," beams the lady in the noodle restaurant in the small coastal town of Kraksaan. "Nothing but a bit of a misunderstanding," smiles the chap in the hardware shop. "We all get on very well here," chortles the TV repair man. The pet shop owner looks less jolly, but he is cut off by his son who angrily asks us to leave. Only Pastor Zacharia, pastor of the small Protestant church, is prepared to be anything less than cheerful. "What happened was scary," he says, "and it's difficult to know whether it will happen again. Almost anywhere there is trouble like this, it is our places that are the first to go. People are afraid of what happened, and they are afraid to talk about it."

In Indonesia, more than in most countries, smiles can be ambiguous but, even so, the unconvincing show of good cheer exhibited by the business people of Kraksaan takes some explaining. Less than a week ago, they were barricaded into their shops, as an angry crowd of looters was held at bay by police. Similar scenes have occurred in a dozen small towns throughout central and east Java. But these people have something else in common, apart from from owning Kraksaan's shops: they are Chinese Indonesians, the minority that dare not speak its name.

As a sprawling archipelago, with five religions, 300 ethnic groups and some 365 languages, Indonesia often looks more like an empire than a unitary state, but in many ways it has done a good job of integrating its many races and peoples. Despite their huge majority, Indonesian Muslims are tolerant and moderate and, with obvious exceptions like East Timor, most of the country's outlying islands and territories are content to be governed from Jakarta. But the devastating collapse of Indonesia's currency, the rupiah, has produced huge social, as well as economic, pressures and it is Chinese Indonesians who are bearing the burden.

Chinese, many of them descended from immigrants two or more generations ago, make up only about eight million of the 202 million population and, in all respects but one, they have an almost invisibly low profile. The Chinese Year of the Tiger, raucously celebrated in the rest of Asia, passed almost unnoticed here - in the interests of ethnic harmony, fireworks and dragon dances have been banned since the 1960s.

Most Chinese use Indonesian names, and speak the Indonesian language outside their homes. There are few high profile Chinese politicians or senior army officers; the faces that dominate TV and entertainment are Javanese and Malay. But in one area, Chinese expertise is unmatched: making money.

Despite composing only 4 per cent of the population, Chinese are reckoned to control as much as 70 per cent of the economy, including many of the largest corporations and banks. On aeroplanes, in expensive restaurants and first class hotels - all the luxuries which are becoming increasingly unaffordable to Indonesians - their presence is noticeable.

It is on the local level that Chinese business acumen is most obvious: in a town like Kraksaan, virtually all the shops are Chinese-owned. And the economic crisis has not only hurt Chinese business, it has also exposed them to misplaced accusations that, far from being victims of the crisis, they are its cause.

"They were born and bred in Indonesia for three or four generations," as the founding Senior Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, observed earlier this week. "They don't speak Chinese, they speak Indonesian. They are part of the Indonesian population. But they are not Muslims and therefore they are a minority and they run the shops and business in Indonesia and they will get the blame for the price increases as a result of the fall in the value of the rupiah. And uncomprehending and mystified Indonesians believe that they are profiteering and so have attacked the shops, which is not a very good sign."

The problem is obvious in a town like Kraksaan, actually two towns in one. Around the main road is all bustle and neat shop fronts. Down the road is the fishing port, a dismal litter-strewn slum of rickety houses and dust. In the former live the largely Christian Chinese. The inhabitants of the latter are overwhelmingly Muslim, may of the from the nearby island of Madura.

"If you want to buy anything in this town, you usually have to buy it from a Chinese," says Edy Susanto, Chinese head of one of Kraksaan's neighbourhood associations. "Recently the prices have gone up, a lot. But the fishermen in the village don't see the reasons, they just see Chinese asking for more money - rice 1,500 rupiah a kilo, instead of 1,000. So they blame it on us."

It is clear that the government is deeply concerned with the tension. Yesterday, President Suharto was quoted in the Jakarta Post warning of the dangers of unrest. But among politicians and bureaucrats, the temptation must be great to let others take blame for their mistakes. This week, police investigating an alleged bomb-making ring publicly hauled in for questioning one of Indonesia's most prominent Chinese businessman, Sofyan Wanandi.

But it is almost inconceivable that the government would seriously stoke the fires of ethnic tension, simply because the consequences could be uncontrollable. Thirty years ago Indonesia was racked by communal killings, anti-Communist in pretext, which left half a million people dead, many of them Chinese. More and more these days, Indonesians are remembering those terrible months and wondering whether it could happen again. Perhaps it is no wonder that the shopkeepers of Kraksaan would rather smile and talk about something else.