Property and businesses owned by Chinese Indonesians were targeted in the widespread rioting and violence that broke out in cities including Jakarta, Medan and Solo, from 12-15 May 1998.


This month marks 20 years since the fall of the authoritarian New Order government and its leader of more than three decades, Soeharto. After months of economic and political turmoil, mass rioting, looting, assaults and murder broke out in cities across the archipelago on 12-15 May, including in Jakarta, Solo and Medan.


In the midst of the widespread violence in these cities, rioters targeted property and businesses largely owned by ethnic Chinese Indonesians, a minority of less than 2 per cent of the Indonesian population but disproportionately represented in its trading and small business sector.


In the days before the violence, graffiti appeared on some shopfronts declaring them to be pribumi (“native Indonesian”) owned. It was an eerie, though not entirely clear, signal to those deemed non-pribumi of what was about to erupt.


The ethnic Chinese had already been under attack for several months. With the deepening of the Asian Economic Crisis in late 1997 and early 1998, the Soeharto regime sought to fend off both IMF attempts to force its compliance and an increasingly hostile public at home. The government’s response to the crisis was a familiar one, involving distraction, pointing at shadows and the usual suspects.


Since the purges of 1965-66, leftist organisations and ideology, together with indicators of ethnic Chinese identity, were outlawed and demonised. But rather than erasing ethnic Chinese identity, it only served to make ethnic Chinese Indonesians more conspicuous, rendering them convenient scapegoats for the regime.


In early 1998, after a bomb exploded in an apartment in Tanah Tinggi, Central Jakarta, the fledging leftist People’s Democratic Party (PRD) and prominent ethnic Chinese tycoon and New Order crony Sofyan Wanandi (Liem Bian Koen) were alleged to have conspired to destabilise the government.


Commentators at the time recognised the absurdity of the proposition, given Wanandi was a prominent anti-communist and one-time Soeharto confidant. For weeks, Wanandi was nonetheless hounded by members of the government, military and Islamic organisations. His attackers included General Feisal Tanjung, General Prabowo Subianto, then-Indonesian Committee for Solidarity with the Islamic World (KISDI) leader Fadli Zon, and Golkar Chair Harmoko. They questioned his patriotism and spouted a broader conspiracy theory of an impending attempt to overthrow the president.


The attempt to associate Wanandi with the PRD, though preposterous to those in political circles, was deliberate and powerful in a society that had been conditioned to accept certain stereotypes linking the ethnic Chinese with the political left. Wanandi concluded that it was because of his ethnicity that he had been singled out for blame and accusations of disloyalty to the nation during a time of crisis.


On 22 January 1998, the rupiah hit a low of Rp 17,000 to the US dollar, about one sixth of its former value. The pressures of inflation, which had reached over 50 per cent by February, meant that increases in the price of basic goods were inevitable. The National Logistics Agency (Bulog) continued to keep prices artificially low, despite calls from the IMF not to do so. Rather than acting to calm the public, the Attorney General announced crackdowns on those found hoarding and hiking prices, and launched military-style searches called “market operations” (operasi pasar).


The anti-hoarding message, but now with racist overtones directed at the ethnic Chinese, was also delivered from pulpits and in statements by the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). With the authorities insisting on normality in the markets and failing to explain to the public what was really happening, traders were deemed responsible. Inevitably they became the focus for a frustrated public.


In this increasingly tense atmosphere, rumours about shop-owners hoarding food and imminent price rises were causing panic, which boiled over into food riots in January and February, largely against ethnic Chinese traders. Initially the attacks were spontaneous and occurred over several weeks coinciding with celebrations to mark the end of Ramadan. But attacks in Java soon took on an organised and systematic character and moved beyond food stores.


Investigation of the early 1998 food riots across Java revealed that local hired preman (thugs) had instigated the violence. There is also compelling evidence that local military and police were aware of the “riot systems” and pattern of attacks in West and Central Java, for example, but took no steps to protect Chinese Indonesians and their property.


The smears against Wanandi, Tutut Suharto’s “I Love Rupiah” campaign – which branded people who sent their money offshore “disloyal” (and inferring ethnic Chinese were doing so) – and the failure of the state to handle pressure on supply of basic goods all meant that Chinese Indonesians were increasingly held directly responsible for the broader crisis.


By the time the political crisis reached its peak in early to mid-May 1998, the groundwork had been laid for heightened anti-Chinese sentiment and a normalising of violence against this group as a legitimate expression of dissatisfaction. This type of violence against ethnic Chinese has occurred repeatedly in modern Indonesian history. It typically involves a combination of local grievances, economic pressures, political conflict, religious antagonism and even hunger, but crucially, also an absence of security or political leadership.


Beginning with the killings by security forces of students at Trisakti University on 12 May, the May riots included the murder of more than 1,000 people trapped in shopping malls set alight, and an estimated 100-plus women raped and sexually assaulted. The violence was undeniably state-sponsored and orchestrated, but the scale and destruction it caused relied on the propensity of the crowd to follow and join in the violence. Acts of anti-Chinese violence took place in the midst of state-sponsored terrorism against urban poor, political violence against student dissidents, and gendered violence.


The extraordinary violence seen in mid-May 1998, particularly in Jakarta, did not fit the pattern of past episodes of anti-Chinese violence. Subsequent investigations by the Joint Fact Finding Team (Tim Gabungan Pencari Fakta) appointed by President BJ Habibie in 1998 and the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women in January 1999, among others, revealed the riots were carried out systematically, with military-style planning, extreme brutality and purpose.


In recent times, many Chinese Indonesians have perceived an uptick in anti-Chinese sentiment, associated with the protests against and prosecution of Jakarta’s former governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in late 2016 and early 2017. This has led them and others to pose a difficult question: could violence like that of May 1998 happen again?


Over the past 20 years, violence that may be considered “anti-Chinese” has been minimal and has usually taken the form of localised grievance-based violence against property, often associated with conflicts over places of worship. As studies by Melissa Crouch have shown, these types of conflict are not specific to Chinese Indonesian non-Muslims. Further, the raft of discriminatory laws repealed, first under President BJ Habibie and then his successors, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Soekarnoputri, have allowed ethnic Chinese to participate as “normal” citizens under the law, if not in the eyes of all their fellow Indonesians. The fact that anti-Chinese sentiment persists in Indonesia is not in dispute but this is not of itself indicative that renewed violence is likely.


Indonesia’s history of violence against its ethnic Chinese minority, and the conditions leading up to May 1998, show that a combination of extraordinary factors need to come together for anti-Chinese violence to occur on such a scale. These include national political and economic crises, plus tensions within local settings, but most importantly the absence of security.


As Indonesia heads towards national elections in 2019, it is possible, perhaps inevitable, that some of these factors may emerge. But, overwhelmingly, the prospects of them all coming together at the same time, and with the necessary intensity, are low. Indonesia’s economic growth projection continues to be strong and it continues to enjoy international acclaim for its economic potential, meaning that an economic crisis on the same scale is unlikely. Importantly, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s popularity remains high, and that also allows him a level of control over the national security forces.


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