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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Once again, the Chinese have paid
for the flaws in Indonesian society

By Peter Cordingley

A List of Indonesia's richest families

IT WAS AN E-MAIL from hell. "Please help us in here. Give us a little compassion. We are innocent. We want to get out." The message, forwarded to Asiaweek Editors, came from Marlina Widjaja, who described herself as the 16-year-old daughter of a Chinese travel agent in Jakarta. From the heart of Chinatown, she put her fear down in words: "I can hear three shots now - four, five, six. I thought this city would never be unsafe, but I was so damn wrong." The e-mail was timed at 2 p.m. on Friday, May 15, as the madness was at last beginning to subside.

What happened to that frightened young woman? What happened to so many of Indonesia's Chinese as the fury of the poor and disenfranchised was turned against them in the second week of May? Much went unnoticed and unreported in the chaos that gripped Jakarta. But what was seen horrified the world. Among the most harrowing scenes: TV footage of the bodies of Chinese families in looted and burned-out stores. How many died or were injured in mob beatings is not known. The exact toll will come later, if at all. Tens of thousands of other Chinese fled - many overseas, others to no further than a friend, neighbor or relative. They each have a story to tell. This is Guo Chien Ing's:

At 11 in the morning of May 14, the 45-year-old merchant pulled down the shutters on his store in an ethnically mixed area of Jakarta. Crowds were gathering and he sensed something was wrong. Guo quickly packed his wife and children off to his sister's home and then barricaded himself inside the store. That's when the abuse started and the rocks began hitting the shutters. Guo fled upstairs to his home and then climbed from a back window on to an adjoining roof. The neighbor, a Muslim woman, put up a ladder to help him down but was too frightened to take him in.

Alone and terrified, Guo was saved by another Muslim, who offered him shelter in his house. From his hiding place, he watched the looters rip his home and store to pieces. "I couldn't talk. I couldn't cry," he recalls. "I was just too tense." Everything was removed - not only his merchandise but his computer, television, security cameras, air-conditioners, right down to plastic buckets. "They even got my electric organ. They took it out through the roof." Guo's home and store were not torched. He doesn't know why, but suspects his non-Chinese neighbors may have talked the rioters out of it. Guo and his family are now safe at his sister's home. He plans to apply for a visa to settle his family in Australia.

In temporary refuge in the capital cities of Asia and beyond (all first-class hotels in Singapore are now full), many other Chinese Indonesians are making their own calculations. Do they go back, pick up the pieces and start again - as some have done when anti-Chinese sentiments have forced them overseas in the past? Or has the madness of May 1998 convinced them that returning is futile - they will forever be the Jews of Indonesia, the scapegoats whenever things go wrong?

Resentment against the Chinese runs deep and a long way back. The Dutch colonizers cultivated large plantations, using the indigenous pribumi as slave labor. The Chinese were always the traders. Today, they own and run banks, hotels, department stores, factories, restaurants, massage parlors and lots more. They make up a mere 4% of the population but control an estimated 70% of the assets. Twelve of the 15 wealthiest families are Chinese, according to calculations made before the Asian meltdown (see table) .

At times of economic trouble, these numbers attract bitterness - and provocative remarks. A few weeks before the violence broke out, Amien Rais, head of the Muhammadiyah Muslim group and one of the most outspoken critics of President Suharto, told Asiaweek: "We must respect the economic achievements of our Chinese brothers and sisters. But at the same time we must tell them frankly that in the future we would like a fairer distribution of the national wealth. I can say that 95% or more of the Chinese love Indonesia like I do. Only a very small percentage are absorbed with economic greediness. They have become parasites."

Many Chinese would agree that the nation's wealth needs to be more equitably distributed. But they also wonder why they are not allowed a larger say in the nation's affairs. They have no true political representation and are barred from the military and the civil service. Says Lai Kuan Fook, executive secretary of the Federation of Chinese Assembly Halls in Malaysia: "The Indonesians of Chinese origin had to forgo their language, their Chinese name, everything. And now they are fingered, their shops robbed, their properties burned down and many are even killed. It is very, very unfair." In Bangkok, Kasian Techapreera, a leading social commentator and lecturer at Thammasat University (and a Sino-Thai), offers: "I think the real problem is to change the political culture in Indonesia. [The indigenous people] still consider the Chinese alien."

The true victims of the latest violence were not the super-rich, most of whose assets are parked overseas. Since the anti-Chinese riots that were part of the upheaval that resulted in the overthrow of president Sukarno in 1965, the rich have learned from experience to hedge their bets. So, too, have wealthy indigenous Indonesians. How much money has left the country is unknown. Corruption has eroded accurate book-keeping to the point where only estimates are now offered. "There's been capital flight for a long time," says a consultant with a major accounting firm in Jakarta. "The money invested here has turned around and left."

Chinese Indonesians are now thought to make up the single largest group of clients at Singapore's private banks - where a minimum deposit of $1 million is normally required. Rioters did ransack the Jakarta home of Chinese tycoon Liem Sioe Liong - torching a Mercedes-Benz and a Volvo and scattering possessions in the grounds - but the owner was not there. Nor were his assets. He was thought to be in the U.S. receiving medical treatment; his money is invested around the world.

So, once again, the have-nots' frustration was worked out on those who had the most to lose - the middle class, with their homes and small businesses. Those who still have something to protect have now formed vigilante groups, often in cooperation with pribumi neighbors. "It's a great way to get to know the people in your locality," said one pribumi last week.

Damagingly for Indonesia, tens of thousands of overseas investors were among those who fled Jakarta. Many left in emergency airlifts organized by their governments, abandoning their businesses and their local employees. How soon - or if - they go back will help decide how quickly the Indonesian economy recovers. Some companies have clearly been shocked by what happened.

Says an official at Ve Wong, a Taiwan foodstuffs producer with $4.9 million invested in a flavor-essence factory in southern Sumatra: "The anti-Chinese rioting has depleted the faith of Chinese investors, even though Indonesia is blessed with rich natural resources that Taiwan needs." He says his company has postponed all future investment.

- With bureau reports from Jakarta, Bangkok,

Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Taipei

*Billions of Dollars, calculated before Asia's economic downturn

From ASIA'S WEALTH CLUB:Who's Really Who in Business - The Top 100 Billionaires in Asia; by Nicholas Brealey Publishing Ltd

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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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