Thursday, May 22, 2003
Retailers still remember May tragedy five years later
By Arya Abhiseka, Jakarta
City News - May 13, 2003
Five years ago, Ibu Linda and her four daughters did not leave their home throughout the horrifying incidents of the May riots that triggered the downfall of despot Soeharto, especially after she had heard that some Chinese women had been raped.
"We stayed home for days and constantly watched television, praying that nothing horrible would ever happen to us," she said.
She added that her electronics shop never crossed her mind, because the family's safety was the only priority at that time.
She later found out that the electronics shop had been looted, leaving her with nothing.
Ibu Linda was among the hundreds of Chinese-Indonesian shopkeepers working in the city's largest retail center of Glodok, West Jakarta, whose businesses were attacked by mobs as resentment against Indonesians of Chinese descent escalated during the riots of May 13 and May 14, 1998.
The May Tragedy, as it was widely known, brought about the fall of Soeharto's 32-year dictatorship, which drove the country into both euphoria and violence.
The shooting of four Trisakti University students on May 12 ignited riots nationwide, particularly in the capital.
The riots mostly targeted the Chinese-Indonesian ethnic group, as many native Indonesians believed they had unfairly dominated the country's economy.
"As soon as we heard that a mob had burned a gas station in Grogol, near Trisakti University in West Jakarta, the Glodok retail center closed," explained Ngadimin, a retailer, of what happened in May 1998.
Ngadimin, who is of Chinese descent, said that he and many other vendors immediately closed their shops and left Glodok to take refuge at home.
He found out the next day on television that his shop and many others that were located on the ground floor of the retail center had been robbed.
"We did not dare return to the place for over a week," he said. When he finally went to his store, all that was left of his shop was shattered glass from the display window.
"For about seven days straight, we had been hearing horrible stories, especially about the rape of Chinese women.
"I just couldn't imagine it," Ngadimin added.
During the authoritarian rule of Soeharto, the Chinese were restricted from the political arena because of communism. Part of Soeharto's strategy to oust Indonesia's first president Sukarno, was to blame Chinese Communists for allegedly assisting the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in their attempt to take over the government in 1965.
Soeharto's economic strategy was also limited to only a handful of close contacts, generally relatives, who were given opportunities in the country's most important business sectors.
It was during this time that several Chinese-Indonesian businessmen took advantage of the situation to bribe their way into becoming Soeharto's economic aides, to amass great personal wealth and stature while enjoying Soeharto's protection.
This, in turn, heightened the resentment against Chinese-Indonesians, which spread to encompass all Chinese-Indonesians, even those in the middle and lower-middle classes.
As riots spread leading up to the fall of the New Order regime, the Chinese and their assets became a prime and easy target of prejudice, and the government, law enforcers and law practitioners often displayed a lack of political commitment to protect their rights.
The climax came in 1998, after the country had just been hit by the economic crisis, and some 5,000 homes, offices, shops and malls, mostly belonging to Chinese-Indonesians, were reportedly looted and burned. The total amount of losses has been estimated at about Rp 2.5 trillion (US$280 million).
"I lost everything in 1998. Even now, I am cautious of what may happen in the future, especially because the upcoming general elections will be held next year," said Alex, another electronics vendor.
Alex said that he and fellow retailers could not plan for any contingencies, since insurance companies refused to insure his goods, due to the events of the May Tragedy.
"For centuries, my family has been in the trading business -- it is all we know. For now, we can only pray that history will not repeat itself," he said.