In Indonesia, 1998 violence against ethnic Chinese remains unaddressed


Ruminah winces as she recalls the afternoon a mob ransacked her tiny hair salon, smashing windows and destroying both the business and her faith in justice in her homeland.

More than a decade later, the reason she was attacked still haunts her: She is part Chinese.

In May 1998, during two deadly days of racially fueled mayhem, rioters killed 1,000 people and raped 87 women, most of Chinese descent. Others cowered in their homes as the rape squads, reportedly led by army thugs, roamed the streets of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.


The petite Ruminah, who, like many here, goes by one name, lost more than her shop that day. Her developmentally disabled son was killed in a fire set by looters at a nearby mall.

“I’m not a smart person,” said Ruminah, 54, an Indonesian-born Muslim whose grandmother married a Chinese merchant here, “but I know my son died that day because he looked Chinese.”

Many of the 5 million ethnic Chinese here, who represent a scant 2% of the population in this predominantly Muslim nation of 248 million, have for years awaited the results of a government investigation of the attacks. Twelve years later, no arrests have been made.

The inquiry stalled years ago when investigators said they failed to find hard evidence of military involvement. The Indonesian government has recently suggested that it will no longer pursue the matter, despite lingering suspicions that the riots were instigated by soldiers influenced by the nation’s political leadership.

Without an official report to the contrary, many Indonesians question whether the rapes even occurred.

For ethnic Chinese, long viewed as scapegoats for Indonesia’s economic woes, life after the 1998 riots has been bittersweet. On one hand, more Chinese Indonesians have run for public office and a number of discriminatory laws have been repealed. Yet many still feel like unwanted outsiders, their community cast as a greedy merchant class with allegiances to Indonesia and China.


Without question, analysts say, there has been progress since the ouster of President Suharto, whose government required ethnic Chinese to adopt Indonesian names and banned Chinese characters and festivals.

After the dictator was forced from office in 1998, the year of the riots that many believe he fomented, Indonesia has encouraged the spread of Chinese culture.

“The lot of ethnic Chinese here has greatly improved since Suharto, but that doesn’t mean the riots’ underlying problems have been resolved,” said Leo Suryadinata, a professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University who focuses on Chinese Indonesian issues. “Issues of poverty, ethnic tension and a gap between rich and poor that led to the violence are still very much alive.”

Many say the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has further marginalized ethnic Chinese. In one rural province, clerics recently disrupted a Chinese parade, arguing that the noise of firecrackers and running dragons interfered with Muslim prayer rites.

“Many Indonesians still believe people with Chinese blood keep close allegiances to Beijing,” said Andy Yentriyani, a leader of the National Commission on Violence Against Women. “The idea is that any freedoms or authority given the ethnic Chinese will come back to harm Indonesia.”

Discrimination against ethnic Chinese here dates back centuries to the Dutch colonial era, when thousands were killed or forced into ghettos. Ethnic Chinese were also attacked in the Indonesian government’s anti-communist purges of the mid-1960s.

In the 1980s came calls for Suharto to rein in numerous large Chinese business conglomerates that many argued controlled the economy. But while most ethnic Chinese were considered to be members of the wealthy merchant class, many were actually small-business men, shopkeepers or traders.

In Ruminah’s lower-class street in East Jakarta, neighbors viewed her as Chinese, even though the mother of five has never truly identified with her Chinese roots. She can’t speak Chinese and doesn’t even know where in China to trace her roots.

“They would ask the same question: ‘Why do you live here among the poor? We know that all the Chinese are rich,’ ” Ruminah recalled.

Local boys teased her 14-year-old son, Gunawan, but not because of his learning disability. “They harassed him because he looked Chinese,” she said. “He would come home crying, and my husband would tell him to ignore the taunts. He said they were just words.”

That changed during the 1998 Asian financial crisis, when mobs took to the streets and attacked ethnic Chinese they blamed for the economic downturn. Many analysts believe Suharto encouraged the violence to take the pressure off his government for the loss of jobs and rising prices.

On the first night, Ruminah went looking for her son, who had gone to watch a fire at a local mall. Later, wearing a mask to guard against the stench, she inspected hundreds of corpses laid out in the parking lot outside the mall.

She never found him. “I only have his burned clothes,” she said, her voice breaking.

For years, Indonesia was viewed as a perilous place for ethnic Chinese. In 2004, a U.S. court granted political asylum to an Indonesian national of Chinese descent who claimed that a return to her homeland would amount to a death sentence. She was just one among the tens of thousands of Chinese Indonesians who have fled the country.

Even now, as ethnic Chinese citizens run for office, prejudices continue.

Sofyan Tan was recently defeated in a run for mayor in the city of Medan, the capital of northern Sumatra. In an interview, the city’s first Chinese Indonesian political candidate said opponents waged a campaign to scare voters into believing he would sell the nation to China.

“More hard work is required to show that leadership cannot be based on race and religion,” he said.

Activists say there are new efforts at national healing. Prabowo Subianto, the former son-in-law of Suharto, met last summer with ethnic Chinese to publicly explain for the first time that he was not involved in the mayhem.

“Many are still ambivalent about his story,” said Jemma Purdey, a research fellow at the Center of Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University in Australia. “But if you meet someone and they tell you straight to your face they didn’t have part in things, you have to respect that.”

Last fall, government officials also met with historians to draft language for Indonesian school textbooks acknowledging that the anti-ethnic Chinese bloodshed actually happened.

“The scar from that violence remains,” said Yentriyani, the commission leader. “How much Indonesians want to heal it, depends on who you talk to.”

For now, Ruminah isn’t taking any chances about the return of ethnic violence. She runs her beauty shop out of her home, where she feels more secure.

She has seen Muslim youths break off a relationship with her college-age daughter once they learn of her Chinese roots. And she misses her son, who never got the chance to come to terms with his Chinese heritage.

Still, she says, she won’t follow the ethnic Chinese who have fled Indonesia since the riots.

“I’m not ashamed of who I am,” she said. “This is my country. Where else can I go?”