Chinese hope for end to years of hate

Frontline JAKARTA
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DRIVE NORTH through central Jakarta, between the docks and the presidential palace, and you pass through Glodok, surely the strangest and the most understated of all the world's Chinatowns.

The obvious features that lend such atmosphere to the Chinese communities of Soho, San Francisco and Yokohama are all absent. There are no dragon gates, or glass-fronted apothecaries' shops selling dried crocodile penis and bears' gall bladders. Glodok's Buddhist temples are thick with gaudy statues and incense smoke, but the entrances are small and inconspicuous.

Until the past few months, even the use of Chinese characters was discouraged, so the names on the businesses - such as Kho Gin Tjan, Lawyer - are rendered in the old spellings used by the former Dutch colonists.

Even Chinese faces are scarcer than you would expect, and the stalls selling pirated cassettes and pornographic CD-Roms are run by ethnic Indonesian boys.

It is only when you turn off the main road that you see the real Chinatown, and the reason for its tense and muted atmosphere: huge concrete hulks, now cracked and blackened with soot from the fires that burnt through them 13 months ago.

Once these were shopping centres, packed with tiny shops selling computers and electrical goods, all run by ethnic Chinese. Now they stand as monuments to the horrors of last year, along one the most active fault lines in modern Indonesia.

Joe Sin Tjhong owned one of these shops. When he locked up, at 3pm on 14 May last year, all was well. An hour later, a friend rang him to say the riots that had erupted the day before, after demonstrations against former President Suharto, had reached his shop.

Throughout the area, soldiers and police looked on as gangs of Indonesians stoned, looted and set fire to Chinese businesses. Whole families were burnt to death in their homes while women were gang-raped. "I can't talk about it," said Mr Tjhong. "I can't cry any more."

Since the riots, and especially during the recent election campaign, something has changed. Muslim political leaders have promised to lift the ban on Chinese language signs and Chinese study in Indonesian schools. There are new magazines, catering toyoung Chinese, and a leading economist, Kwik Kian Gie, is likely to win a cabinet post if, as expected, his party leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, becomes the next president.

Most remarkable of all, a Chinese party, Unity in Diversity, was among 48 competing in Monday's poll. It has made little impact, but its existence is novelty enough.

"Last year's riots were the worst moment for Chinese in the republic's history," said Harry Tjan Silalahi, an ethnic Chinese academic at Jakarta's Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "But recently, lots of Chinese youngsters are coming up and joining political parties. It's phenomenal."

For centuries, beginning under the Dutch colonists and culminating in the toppled Suharto's "New Order" regime, Indonesian Chinese were imprisoned in what is known as the "gilded cage".

Natural business acumen, and the favour of a succession of rulers, allowed them to dominate the economy, despite constituting only about 3 per cent of the population. But their prosperity also created resentment among indigenous Indonesians, which boiled over last year.

The question is: why? Was this a confrontation waiting to happen, or a deliberately provoked outrage? Mr Tjan of CSIS believes it was the latter. "The anti-Chinese rioting was engineered by a certain military group which wanted to target the Chinese to show that the nation still needs the army," he says. "The message was, `Without us, look what happens.' "

But the alacrity with which ordinary Jakartans joined in the destruction suggests an underlying problem.

Mr Tjhong borrowed cash from relatives to open a new shop in a temporary arcade. But business is sluggish, and there are still scares, whennervous traders shut up shop and run for cover. "Today there is peace - tomorrow there could be another riot," he said. "Politics changes all the time. No one knows what's going to happen."

Richard Lloyd Parry