Remembering the May 1998 Riots in Indonesia

Remembering the May 1998 Riots in Indonesia

Why you should care

More than 15 years after the May 1998 riots in Indonesia, which was aimed largely at the nation’s ethnic Chinese population, the country still struggles with discrimination.

Eight-year-old Hindra Martono was watching an afternoon news segment on the riots erupting in Jakarta when the mob came. Amid the din of fists banging on the door, Martono’s father rushed his family into the attic to hide. What if the crowd decided to burn down the house? Martono’s mother told him to pray to God, so he fingered the maid’s Islamic prayer beads. His sister broke down in tears.

Then the looters scaled his house and shattered the window. They swarmed inside, grabbing food, money, electronics, furniture — everything. Martono recognized his father’s employees, who had often played with him. “I really hated them at that time,” he said. “I felt like I was betrayed.”

An estimated 1,000 people died, and at least 168 were raped.

Eventually they found the Martonos in the attic. Luckily, they escaped to a relative’s house, but Martono doesn’t remember how — only the sound of his mother screaming over and over, “You can take it all!” When they finally returned home, they found their house and grocery store — the one Martono’s father had built 20 years ago from the ground up — completely destroyed.

The Martonos were but a few among hundreds of ethnic Chinese that rioters targeted in May 1998, especially in Medan, Jakarta and Solo, contributing to the fall of then-President Suharto’s 32-year authoritarian regime known as the New Order. An estimated 1,000 people died — often trapped in burning buildings — and at least 168 were raped. Many fled to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, New Zealand and the U.S.

Suharto’s New Order government forced them to adopt Indonesian surnames…

Meanwhile, rioters in Jakarta torched 13-year-old Siska Wijaya’s school to the ground. And soon after Mey Ling (not her real name) boarded the bus from her university campus in West Java, a group of men dressed in black raped four or five Chinese Indonesian women — including Ling.

Indonesia’s Chinese descended from emigrants who had fanned out across Southeast Asia about a century ago to escape poverty and persecution. Many came as poor fishermen, farmers and traders whose immigrant drive and familial connections propelled them to success — sparking resentment among locals.

The Sukarno regime prevented the ethnic Chinese from doing business outside urban areas. Suharto’s New Order government forced them to adopt Indonesian surnames, outlawed them from practicing their traditions in public and required them to obtain proof of citizenship in addition to a government ID card.

Man protest throwing outdoor

Muslim rioters rampage the streets, throwing rocks and setting fire to cars.

Although the ethnic Chinese made up only 3% of the population in 1998, they controlled as much as 80% of the country’s private-sector commerce. Several also preferred to speak Chinese, and practiced Christianity or Buddhism in the predominantly Muslim country. Many indigenous Indonesians, or pribumis, viewed them as outsiders benefiting from Suharto’s old, corrupt system. By the time the Asian financial crisis had resulted in rising unemployment and food prices in 1997, they had become an easy target for blame.

Many ethnic Chinese have prepared escape plans in case of future riots…

The riots began after a largely rigged election granted the majority of legislative seats to Golkar party members, who elected Suharto to his seventh consecutive five-year term in March 1998. Despite calls for reform, his cabinet still consisted mostly of family members and cronies. Meanwhile, the public had lost confidence in the regime’s ability to turn the economy around.

That May, violent campus protests often gave way to anti-Chinese violence. For example, the death of a Medan university student — blamed on police officers firing tear gas — evolved into a riot at a local police station on May 5. Rioters looted shops owned by Chinese Indonesians, tagging them with “Milik pribumi” (“owned by the pribumi”) in graffiti.

Military leaders in charge of restoring order were largely absent, leading some storeowners to hire local thugs for protection. Suharto lost control of his military leadership and resigned from office on May 21, ushering in a new era of reform, or reformasi.

Suharto’s successor, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, forbade the use of the terms pribumi and nonpribumi and declared that a government ID alone sufficed as proof of citizenship. His successor, Gus Dur, then abolished the law that prohibited the public display of Chinese traditions. And former president Susilo Bambang Yudyohono reinstated Confucianism as a nationally recognized religion in 2006.

Official portrait made of Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibe

Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibe

Chinese Indonesians have also entered the political arena, with at least 15 winning seats in the 2009 legislative elections. But University of Indonesia sociologist Mely Tan notes that many ethnic Chinese have prepared escape plans in case of future riots and still distrust indigenous Indonesians.

And reformasi hasn’t completely abolished discrimination. A growing number of hardline religious groups have targeted Christians, Shi’ites and other religious minorities in recent years. Just last month, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Anti-Heresy Front gathered for an “Anti Shi’ite Alliance” convention. Yet Indonesia’s home affairs manager, Gamawan Fauzi, has praised the FPI as a potential “national asset.”

Reformasi has helped to dismantle racist policies against Chinese Indonesians. But the May 1998 riots should still serve as a reminder of the terrifying outcomes of institutionalized discrimination and its offspring.

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