Jakarta's fearful Chinese New Year

SUN JOURNAL

Minority: Ethnic Chinese make up 3 percent of Indonesia's population but control 70 percent of private business, a fact that has made them scapegoats for the nation's desperate economic situation.

February 20, 1999|By Ian Timberlake | Ian Timberlake,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- For Akwet Lim, 54, a sign painter in Glodok, Jakarta's Chinatown, Chinese New Year means a visit to the temple, with its smoky, sweet incense and burning red candles. This year, his prayer was simple.

"I want peace," he says. "I am afraid."

Last May, he had to flee from his shop and hide in an army barracks with his wife and three children during three days of mob violence that left an estimated 1,200 people dead, dozens of Chinese women raped and thousands of buildings damaged.

Celebrations were subdued this week as the Year of the Rabbit arrived in the dank, twisting passageways of Glodok. With his brush and black ink, Lim painted Chinese characters onto a white sheet of paper to make a sign for the neighborhood Buddhist temple. There was no lion-dancing. As in past years, the Jakarta city government banned Chinese New Year festivities.

Pervasive fear

The celebration was a family event, rather than a public jubilation, and fear like Lim's was pervasive.

"We are afraid that Chinese will experience the same situation like that in May," says a 19-year-old who helps her family sell rice inside the crumbling walls of their tiny Glodok store. "I think in Indonesia now the most important for us, is our safety."

"We can see from every indication that everything will be worse," says Johannes Linandi, an ethnic Chinese and assistant pastor of Christ Church Ketapang.

His church is now an empty shell, open to the sky. It was one of 22 Christian houses of worship in Jakarta that were burned and ransacked by mobs Nov. 22. A frenzied crowd pushed a burning motorcycle into Linandi's church and set the building ablaze. As he fled for his life he was beaten with sticks, punched, robbed and threatened with a sword.

The cramped, crowded Chinatown remains scarred and battered. Small office buildings on Glodok's main road still have plywood over windows shattered in the May riots. Towering over the market are the charred concrete ruins of two malls destroyed by fire.

Ethnic Chinese, mostly Christian and Buddhist, make up about 3 percent of Indonesia's more than 200 million people, the majority of whom are Muslim.

The Chinese have been the chief, but not the only, target of violence that has struck various ethnic communities across Indonesia. The May rioting helped force Indonesia's autocratic President Suharto from office after 32 years in power.

A government fact-finding team concluded opaquely that the spring riots had been, at least in part, instigated by unnamed individuals and linked to struggles among the political elite. Every outburst since has been subject to similar speculation, both inside and outside the Chinese community, about political manipulation by forces opposed to political and social reform.

One casualty, says Mely Tan, a U.S.-trained sociologist at the private Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta, has been trust among different ethnic groups. "It is a very volatile situation. We have to be very careful."

An auspicious year?

The year 1999 ought to be bringing better luck, she says. "Nine is an auspicious number in Chinese numerology. So with three nines it should be an auspicious year." She puts her hands together and says: "We hope and pray."

Life has rarely been placid for ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. After Suharto rose to power in 1965 amid a bloody purge that left many Chinese dead, he pursued a policy aimed at suppressing expressions of ethnic Chinese culture, ostensibly to minimize inter-ethnic conflict by assimilating the Chinese. His New Order government closed Chinese schools in the mid-1960s and forbade the display of Chinese writing on the outside of buildings.

Although ethnic Chinese businessmen control about 70 percent of Indonesia's private-sector economy, they have difficulty getting good government jobs or winning admission to state-run universities. And they often face resentment from Javanese, Malay and other ethnic groups who blame the richer Chinese for Indonesian poverty.

"I often pray to God," says an ethnic Chinese factory worker who will not give his name. "Why am I born in Indonesia -- not America?" He stamps his foot on the ground, as if crushing an ant. That's how the Chinese are treated, he indicates.

Several months ago Indonesia's new President B. J. Habibie, who replaced Suharto in May, ordered that ethnic Chinese should be treated as equal citizens, and some of the anti-Chinese restrictions have eased recently.

Though the Chinese New Year celebration was banned, greeting cards for the holiday were displayed openly in a Jakarta bookstore, and the little Glodok market shops, where abacuses rest on the counters, were stocked with incense and other New Year's necessities. Thousands of Asian tourists, according to the Jakarta Post, celebrated Chinese New Year in Indonesia's Batam island, near Singapore, and in the tourist resort of Bali.

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