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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


How and why Indonesia's third-largest city descended into chaos

By Jose Manuel Tesoro / MEDAN

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Harsh Lessons: A timeline of the students' semester of turmoil

I AM STANDING UNDER A HARSH FLUORESCENT light as a man, approaching, unsheathes a meat cleaver. Around me gathers a gang of people, all holding thick wooden sticks, steel pipes or spears. In the street beyond, more armed silhouettes near. Some are boys as young as 10, learning early how to play vigilante. Around us, stores in the Chinese-dominated downtown remain shuttered, the windows above blank and empty behind bars of iron. A block away, police speed by on screaming motorcycles, the sound echoing down the dirty, deserted alleys. Their passage is a reminder that elsewhere in this city, homes and cars are burning, families fleeing. These Chinese gangs had formed in Medan's heart to protect what was left. As far as we were from the city's outskirts, which bore the brunt of the unrest, menace still hung as heavy as the humidity.

Medan, Indonesia's third-largest city after Jakarta and Surabaya, belonged to no one. Not to the authorities. Not to its 2 million residents, whose space of peace, if they were native Indonesians, had shrunk to what they could paint with their clan names or cover with Muslim prayer mats to ward off marauders. If they were Chinese, no symbols could protect them. They only felt safe in so far as they could defend themselves with their makeshift weapons. During three days of rioting, which began May 4 as a student demonstration ended, the city had been reduced to anarchy. Crowds formed, then rampaged. If troops or plainclothes police appeared, there could be a clash, or the crowd would dissolve down Medan's streets and alleys followed by tear gas and bullets. What they did not take, they torched. "The armed forces cannot overcome this," cried 50-year-old Ismet Halil, who lives above a row of shops first hit by the looting. "It is a national disaster."

Order vanished with a speed and treachery that shocked even Medan's residents, who can, in the best of times, take perverse pleasure in their city's famously brutal reputation. A local lawyer told me an old Medan joke: "Its name stands for Masuklah Engkau Dalam Api Neraka." Enter into the flames of hell. The riots and looting, which had died out by May 7, exceeded in reach and damage those of April 1994, which were touched off by labor protests. This time troops shut the toll road; no ships left nearby Belawan harbor with the rubber, palm oil and coffee that are Sumatra's major exports. Official reports say two people died, including a boy burned to death in a store. Local press reported more fatalities. Scores were hurt, hundreds of shops ransacked, dozens of cars and motorcycles left smoldering.

I usually learn about a city slowly; it does not, at first glance, reveal its deepest conflicts and secrets. Medan was an exception. Its fragile, precarious nature lay exposed, terribly obvious. Its lawlessness, social turmoil and ethnic violence horrified Indonesians, as much for the ferocity as for the dim fear that Medan might be a hint of the country's near future.

The city's descent into chaos appears to have no heroes, only villains and victims. Like fire, tragedy leapt from one group to another. The first to be hurt were Medan's poor. By the end of April, says the Ministry of Manpower, nearly 7,000 workers had lost their jobs. Government statistics are suspect, but multiply that figure by six or seven to imagine the number (wives, relatives, children) affected locally by the deep national recession. The day the riots began, Jakarta hiked the price of fuel as high as 71%, a move that rippled inflation through the rest of the economy. "It's hard to find food, money and work," says a taxi driver. "Incomes and expenses are not balanced."

The second victim is the student movement. Medan's Teacher's Training Institute sits in an area that houses numerous workers. Late on May 4, students left the campus after a day-long demonstration. Suddenly, in the middle of the departing crowd, people began hurling stones at stores near the school, before attacking. As the looting and clashes spread, authorities canceled classes at all of the city's 30 universities. The fact that, at least circumstantially, the riots began with a demonstration has put students on the defensive. "The students were entered by a third party," claims an activist at the University of North Sumatra.

The third is the Chinese community. The mob targeted Chinese-owned businesses, such as warehouses and motorcycle dealerships. The crowd would leave some buildings untouched then hit, ferociously, at others. Lawyer and local resident Asmadinata observes that the neighborhoods struck by rioting correspond to places where the gap between classes is greatest.

On one street, a few storefronts away from where a group of soldiers were standing, men were ransacking what was left of a Chinese-owned furniture store. One stood in the middle of the road, idly tossing in the air a set of someone else's family pictures. Some local ethnic Chinese just cannot understand why they are automatically the easiest object of attack. "We eat here, we sleep here, we even shit here - why can't we be accepted?" asks a 48-year-old Chinese automotive goods salesman.

Talk to enough Medanese and you will find a fourth victim: the native Indonesians, called pribumis. Given the dominance Medan's approximately 300,000 Chinese have over the city's wealth and commerce, the mob never had to look far to find an appropriate target. Locals have a long list of complaints against the Chinese. They have not made enough of an effort to integrate. They speak Chinese to each other, something rarely done in Javanese cities. They conspire with officials to work their way around laws and regulations, striking mutually lucrative deals in exchange for privileges and protection. In short, they feed off the city's wealth while remaining aloof and secluded.

The riots that struck Medan in 1994 began as protests against mostly Chinese factory owners who refused to abide by a nationwide rise in minimum wages. If their own laws and officials cannot deliver to pribumis greater equity, then the logic behind wresting equity by force becomes unreasonably attractive: I cannot be as rich as you, even in my own country. So I will take, because I want it, or destroy, so you, too, will suffer.

It is easy enough to list the victims. It is much tougher to identify villains. Blame the mob, sure. But in the confused, edgy atmosphere of a city convulsed by riot, all groups seemed suspicious, treacherous. The outnumbered security forces could not guarantee order, the rule of law, not even morals. So anyone could be - or could do - anything.

On the night of May 7, the atmosphere on the road between Medan and Belawan port felt inexplicably threatening. Were the youngsters loitering outside a factory just out for air? Or were they planning destruction? That man picking up a rock - what was his real intention? At one junction about 50 men with sticks and pipes filled the intersection. They said they were guarding the shops against Chinese attackers. But one revealed he traveled to Medan to buy a motorcycle cheaply. As we spoke, a man pointed at a passing vehicle. "That's a Chinese car! Catch it! We must burn it." The crowd surrounding our taxi soon became uncomfortable. Then a police motorcycle convoy roared past, firing bullets into the night. The crowd scattered. From April 27 to May 6, Medan police arrested over 400 people. In the end, they charged about 50.

"How can people who one day live together the next moment turn on each other?" asks local historian T. Luckman Sinar. "We human beings can't be like this." Perhaps, he says, the city's brutal nature springs from its lack of a single culture. The city's many ethnic communities - Javanese, Batak, Chinese, Melayu, Indian, Arab - have managed to stay fairly separate, each with their own way of life. The Medanese are fond of saying "Ini Medan, Bung!" (This is Medan, man. We do what we want.) The attitude permeates the entire city, especially its government. Says lawyer Asmadinata, "Regulations are not tight. Things are very flexible." How flexible depends on money, power and status.

One intriguing measure of Medan's changeable character is the visible presence of the Pancasila Youth, a mass organization linked to the government. To keep going, it relies largely on donations. In return its members (some 300,000 in north Sumatra) provide protection services to private homes or businesses in the area. That gives them a great deal of influence. One member boasts: "If I say it is black, it is black." During the riots, the group deployed its people to protect property. At a police official's home one evening, Pancasila Youth members and Chinese residents discussed ways to defend themselves. If a non-governmental, unfunded group can rise to rival the police, then, indeed, anything in Medan can be accomplished.

What makes a city go amok? One student leader offers an answer. Medan's problem "is that the system is not made for the people," says Agus Arifin, 25. Social breakdowns have deeper roots than hunger, frustration or anger. They are consequences of a failure to persuade the majority that the existing system ought to be protected. If the powerful can bend or make rules, then why respect any rules at all? Without that faith in law and order, only force remains between society and chaos. When that threat of force retreats, or is outnumbered, everything is up for grabs. And nothing is safe. Ever.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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