Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Multicultural and Multifaith Celebration in Indonesia

Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia's fourth head of state, revoked a decree that had restricted Chinese traditions and religious rituals ever since a 1965 coup attempt was blamed on the Chinese-backed Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). In February 2000, Indonesia’s seven million ethnic Chinese were allowed to publicly celebrate their New Year for the first time in 35 years. Long banned colorful barongsai – lion dance troupes – suddenly re-emerged and Wahid declared the celebration an “optional holiday” for businesses, schools and offices.

Megawati Soekarnoputri, Indonesia's fifth head of state, announced the new public holiday at a Chinese New Year celebration organized in Jakarta on Sunday (17/2/02).

Before I moved to Toronto in 2000, I had a bit taste of "freedom" to celebrate Chinese New Year. Freedom? Yes, that's what I felt. In my recollection from childhood to adulthood to be Chinese in Indonesia is very regrettable and everything I never wished for. However, the first taste of multiculturalism in Canada had made me come to terms to a cliché but still a profound soul-searching question: is it OK to be a Chinese in Indonesia?

I remembered when I was little, my paternal grandmother used to give me a glass of "arak" (Chinese wine) to enjoy during Chinese New Year celebration. She would hush-hush me and my brother to the kitchen, told me not to tell a soul, and gave us a glass of Chinese wine. I felt so proud of myself... I guessed I had the taste of adulthood—because only adults could have wine then. Then, we all (my father's and my mother's siblings' families) would have dinner together, then played with my cousins and, my favourite, got money wrapped in red envelope (angpao)—memories I cherish until this day.

I didn't gain the knowledge that I have Chinese blood and that Chinese New Year celebration was a taboo until I was in primary school. That day, as usual, I played with the children in my neighbourhood after I finished my lunch and homework. We played hopscotch (one-leg jump) that time. I was so content because I won three times in a row. When it's obvious that I'd win for the fourth times, one of the children shouted "Cina, Cina" with mocking tones and started to leave me. As I stood there, confused for a moment, I could still hear children said, "Dasar Cina. Ngapain main sama Cina, curang." (loosely translated as "Damn Chinese. Don't need to play with Chinese, they're dishonest.") I was very upset but I didn't know what to do.

At night I told my parents about this incident and asked what "Cina" meant. It was then I got my first awareness of the word "Cina" and its two-dimension position on the world atlas.

As I got older I realized that to be Chinese in Indonesia was to be treated unfairly and to be discriminated against—and yet people think it's the way it should be as payment for our power in economy. Even many educated Indonesians hold racist insinuation towards Chinese—consciously or otherwise. It's unbearable and yet people accept it as the air they breathe everyday. I have a long list of discriminatory experiences when I lived in Indonesia, but I think it's not the time to write about those things now.

Prior to 1998 there's no organized protest about many Chinese-discriminating regulations and practices in Indonesia. There were some individual protests but nobody seemed to pick up the issue. I believe it happened because of Soeharto's strategic "divide-et-impera" (conquer and rule) scheme to control the country. The consequences are very damaging—it killed the empowerment of civil society.

During that time Chinese-Indonesians never celebrated Chinese New Year openly. Furthermore we lost some of the traditions attached to this celebration, such as new year's parade, lighting firecrackers, new year's decoration—and the most important thing: the rights to express our ethno-cultural identity. So, when I could celebrate it openly in 2000, it meant something to me. Yet, I think the struggle to eradicate a long list of discriminatory regulations and practices in Indonesia is still a long way to go. I believe we will never solve this problem as long as people treat diversity as threat not asset, and as long as the powerful elites of the country play their old "divide-et-impera" card.

This week marked a unique multifaith and multicultural celebration in Indonesia: Chinese New Year, Satu Muharram (Moslem's New Year), and Ash Wednesday—an opportunity for us to embrace and practice the diversity in Indonesia.

Ethnic Chinese faced state-sanctioned discrimination under more than 20 regulations during the 32-year rule of former president Suharto, who was forced to resign in May 1998 amid economic collapse, massive protests and riots.

Ethnic Chinese, who control much of Indonesia's private economy, make up about 5% of Indonesia’s 220 million people and are widely resented for their financial acumen and close-knit communities.

They had been discriminated against long before Suharto came to power. Centuries ago the Dutch colonial administration segregated migrant Chinese workers and gave them tasks in commerce and trade, much to the envy of pribumi (indigenous Indonesians).

Founding president Sukarno – Megawati’s father – continued the discrimination by banning ethnic Chinese merchants from engaging in trade in rural areas.

The racism became legalized during the Suharto regime. Many ethnic Chinese were among the estimated 500,000 people slaughtered in the wake of the botched 1965 coup.

From then on, Chinese were treated with increased mistrust, suspicion and hatred. The regime made it virtually impossible for them to attain high positions in the government and military.

Ethnic Chinese were strongly encouraged to change their names to indigenous equivalents. All Chinese texts were banned and destroyed, and only a pro-government Chinese newspaper Harian Indonesia was permitted. Even construction of Chinese temples was outlawed.

Chinese language schools were banned, as were Chinese-related products. University courses in medicine, engineering, law and science had a 10% intake limit on ethnic Chinese students.

Ethnic Chinese were forced to have a special code on their mandatory identity cards and passports identifying their descent. This code, which has been compared to the use of the Jewish star in Nazi Germany, made them subject to extortion and abuse by government officials and hoodlums alike. Whenever applying for business licenses, passports, legal papers and other documents, they were usually forced to pay additional illegal fees.

This regulation was revoked last year but ethnic Chinese say many village heads still issue identity cards with the discriminatory code to signify the bearer is fair game for extortion.

Suharto took a few ethnic Chinese under his wing to serve his business purposes and thus created some of the nation’s richest tycoons, which only furthered racist sentiment among the Muslim majority.

Ethnic Chinese were widely blamed for the financial turmoil of 1997-98 and became targeted during the organized mass riots of May 1998. Their houses and businesses were singled out for looting and arson, while scores of ethnic Chinese women and girls were raped.

Certain military officers added fuel to the flames by declaring that “traitors” had caused the crisis and were making things worse by putting their money abroad.

Among those accused of fueling the anti-Chinese sentiment was former Jakarta military commander General Sjafrie Sjamsuddin, who was appointed chief spokesman of the Indonesian Defense Forces (TNI) in 2002.

Although much official discrimination still exists – such as in customs and immigration declaration forms – the ethnic Chinese are gradually being treated with more respect, even though deep-seated resentment remains strong.

There are now several Chinese language publications, while Metro TV produces Metro Xinwein – a news program presented in Mandarin. Many universities have begun offering Chinese language courses.

Some analysts say Indonesia should try to overcome its ongoing economic turmoil by learning from the ethnic Chinese, many of whom who thrived financially despite decades of repression. But that’s hardly the right way to go about ending discrimination. The only solution is to stop classifying people as either pribumi or Chinese, and start referring to all citizens as ‘Indonesians’ and ensuring they have equal rights and opportunities.


The Jakarta Post
Sunday, February 6, 2005

Discriminatory rules still haunt Chinese-Indonesians
By Kurniawan Hari, Jakarta

For badminton legend Tan Joe Hok, 67, any discussion about discrimination against suku Tionghoa (the term used by many Chinese-Indonesians to describe themselves) is frustrating. Indeed, he was reluctant to recall all of the instances of discrimination suffered by him and his family.

"It was very difficult for my children to enroll in schools. We, Chinese-Indonesians, are considered foreigners in our own homeland," he told The Jakarta Post recently.

Tan Joe Hok, the All England champion in 1959 and a member of the victorious Thomas Cup teams in 1961 and 1964, refused to elaborate on the discrimination.

He simply said that all he wanted was clarity from the government; whether Chinese-Indonesians are still required to obtain an SBKRI (the acronym for Indonesian citizenship certificates).

Officially, the government in 1996 revoked the regulation requiring Chinese-Indonesians to produce a SBKRI if they wanted to obtain documents such as ID cards, driver's licenses, passports and birth certificates.

But a recent survey by Solidarity for the Nation (SNB) in five cities found Chinese-Indonesians were still required to produce SBKRIs.

"Today, the situation is uncertain. That is why we need clarity from the government," Tan Joe Hok added.

When president Soeharto revoked the discriminatory regulation in 1996 expectations were high that it would be a starting point for an end to racial discrimination in the country.

In 1998, president BJ Habibie issued a presidential instruction to end the official use of the phrases "indigenous Indonesians" and "non-indigenous Indonesians".

Two years later, the government of president Abdurrahman Wahid revoked a regulation banning Chinese-Indonesians from celebrating their religious ceremonies and holidays.

And president Megawati Soekarnoputri in 2002 declared the Chinese New Year, known here as imlek, a national holiday.

This was all a relief for Chinese-Indonesians, who for decades had experienced discrimination.

However, despite signals from the government that it was ending discrimination against Chinese-Indonesians, officials in the field continueto enforce discriminatory policies.

Lawyer Frans Hendra Winarta said despite the revocation of the regulation on the SBKRI, officials still asked Chinese-Indonesians to produce the certificate.

"Since the practice lacks a legal basis, it just takes courage from Chinese-Indonesians to reject any demand to produce a SBKRI."

"My last experience was when I extended my passport two months ago. The officials asked me to produce a SBKRI but I refused their demand. There must be courage on the part of Chinese-Indonesian," Frans told the Post.

These discriminatory practices, which had a legal basis in various regulations, were inherited from the Dutch colonial rulers. The Dutch segregated the people based on ethnicity; that is Europeans, Arabs, East Asians (including Chinese) and the indigenous population. The indigenous people were treated inferior to the "second-class" Arabs and East Asians, and the "first-class" Europeans.

Soelistyowati Soegondo, a member of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), said recently that today continued to complain about discrimination.

"We continue to receive complaints from people. They want justice," she said.

Minister of Justice and Human Rights Hamid Awaluddin has said that the government had revoked the regulation on the SBKRI. He said the continued application of this regulation by offices in the field was the result of inconsistency in state apparatus.

"We have revoked the regulation but there are inconsistencies in the application," he said.

Legislator Alvin Lie Ling Piao from the National Mandate Party (PAN) was not eager when asked to comment on discrimination against Chinese-Indonesians.

He said the situation was improving for Chinese-Indonesians, and regional autonomy had encouraged several regions to put an end to all discriminatory practices.

Local administrations in Surakarta and Semarang, both in Central Java, have said they wish to be pioneers in the abolishment of discrimination, especially in public services.

"As a nation we have to engage in some reflection. We have to ask ourselves whether Chinese-Indonesians have done their best for the country," Alvin said.

Some rulings on Chinese-Indonesians:

  • Article 26 of the Constitution on citizenship differentiates between indigenous Indonesians and Indonesians of other races.
  • Law No. 62/1958 on citizenship obliges Indonesian-born Chinese to carry documents not required for "indigenous" Indonesians.
  • Presidential Decree No. 240/1966 obliges all those of Chinese descent to adopt Indonesian names.
  • Presidential Instruction No. 37/1967 limits the education and economic opportunities for Chinese-Indonesians.
  • Home Ministry Instruction No. 455.2-360/1968 regulates the construction of Chinese temples.

The Jakarta Post
Sunday, February 6, 2005

A timid walk to a place free from discrimination
By Evi Mariani and Adianto P. Simamora, Jakarta

For the past two years, Daniel Kristanto, 28, has not been afraid to get into a traffic argument in Jakarta despite his obvious ethnic Chinese appearance.

"If a car tries to cut me off in traffic, I will fight back regardless of the driver's ethnicity," he said.

This is something he would never have considered doing in, say, 1997, because such a simple act of defense (or offense) was sometimes enough to incite an ethnic riot.

"In big cities like Jakarta, I feel that my life as a Chinese-Indonesian has improved in recent years. I feel more freedom now, I can go anywhere without worrying about my Chinese look," Daniel told The Jakarta Post.

However, one morning, he was reminded of the problems facing ethnic Chinese while reading a national newspaper.

"There was an article about a graft suspect. The story mentioned the suspect's name as well as his Chinese name, something like 'Mr. X', whose real name is blah blah blah,'" Daniel said.

"What about other Chinese-Indonesians who give Indonesia a good name for the rest of the world? Like Susi Susanti, Alan Budikusuma or Agnes Monica. Does the media ever mention their Chinese names?" he asked, clearly irritated.

Since 2000, when then president Abdurrahman Wahid lifted the ban on celebrating the Chinese New Year, some Chinese-Indonesians have begun to emerge from the bitter past of violence and injustice.

At the same time, some non-ethnic Chinese have started to be more accepting of Chinese-Indonesians, walking side by side with them.

But what a long walk they must take, so after four years the road to a diverse and peaceful country still stretches far ahead of them.

"There are some obstacles on the road toward a world free of racial discrimination, it's true. But it's nothing to worry about because we are on the right track," Benny G. Setiono, the chairman of the Chinese-Indonesian Association, told the Post.

"Since the May riots in 1998, many Chinese-Indonesians have begun to be more inclusive. We show that we care for others. For example, we have sent dozens of medical workers to Meulaboh and we will send more," he said.

Ester Indahyani Yusuf, whose organization Solidarity for the Nation, works for a world without ethnic discrimination, agreed that simple acts of kindness from the Chinese-Indonesian community could tear down the walls of prejudice on both sides.

"For example, once a Chinese-Indonesian community helped out flood victims around the neighborhood. They received a warm response and a special speech from the community leader about accepting Chinese-Indonesians as friends," Ester said.

Among the people who do not anchor political or economic interests, discrimination and prejudice seem to be more easily vanquished. A pleasant smile, a simple "hi" to the neighbors and a brief chat usually do the trick.

But that often is not the case with the government and officials.

Chinese-Indonesians still are seen as cash cows for some government officials who make the process of applying for an identity card or a passport a tormenting labyrinth.

Apart from this extortion in the guise of bureaucracy, the government also has showed no interest in providing a clean and honest start to help the people end prejudice.

"There has been no political will to seriously investigate and seek justice for the May riots," said Ester, who has been working on the issue for almost seven years.

There has never been an explanation from the government about how the riots and the violence was able to take place under the nose of the military and the police.

Bernard Wijaya, 56, a community leader in a housing complex Pluit, North Jakarta, where 98 percent of the residents are Chinese-Indonesians, said he had overcome the trauma of those ugly events.

"We are glad that now we can celebrate the Chinese New Year without fear," he said.

Indeed, days before the Chinese New Year, some houses in his neighborhood are adorned with red lanterns, telling passers by the owners are going to celebrate the Year of the Rooster.

However, at the same time, the tall and sturdy gates erected after the riots are still standing, separating the housing complex from the surrounding neighborhood.

It is as if the red lanterns are saying, "Yes, we acknowledge we have been recognized and accepted and we're happy," while at the same time the gates say, "But prejudice lingers."


The Jakarta Post
Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Editorial ~ A Distinctively New Year

The measure of a nation's greatness lies in its ability to reconcile its diversity.

There continue to be many things wrong with this country. Every day, this and other newspapers report an endless stream of injustices that occur across the archipelago. Still, amid all that is wrong it is heartening to find some things so gloriously right.

The continued outpouring of benevolence for victims of the tsunami in northern Sumatra is one such thing. It marks a triumph not only for Indonesians, but humanity as a whole. Without prejudice to religion or race, people donated and contributed whatever they could to comfort those in need.

The upcoming two-day national holiday is another measure of how far this country has come. The commemoration of the Chinese New Year and the Islamic New Year, which fall on consecutive days, shows that plurality can work without the imposition of stringent controls, as was the case during the New Order era.

Less than a decade ago such adjoining public events would have been unthinkable. Chinese cultural traditions were considered taboo. Under a misguided political pretext -- related to the anti-communist hysteria -- anything that was even vaguely connected to Chinese culture was frowned upon.

Few even stopped to ask what Chinese culture, one of the oldest and most revered in human history, had to do with modern Communism?

Generations of Indonesians of Chinese descent were forced to suppress their heritage and forsake their identity. The politically correct phrase of the day was "assimilation", but in practice it was closer to discrimination.

President Abdurrahman Wahid was the first to ease the cultural restrictions in 2000 by allowing ethnic Chinese to resume and celebrate their cultural identity. President Megawati Soekarnoputri went a step further in providing the ultimate acknowledgement of Chinese culture by declaring the Lunar New Year a national holiday.

The stereotypes have not been completely jettisoned from ignorant minds, but formal acceptance of Chinese culture is a tremendous leap forward. Even non-ethnic Chinese can now enjoy the richness of the occasion.

In similar fashion, the Islamic New Year generates distinct rites and ceremonies that may not be strictly religious in nature.

Satu Suro festivities, for example, always draw a large crowd at the sultan's palace in Yogyakarta, where a hodgepodge of animism and Islamic rituals are intertwined with each other.

Each religion or faith is distinct. One cannot interchange between them. But distinctiveness does not have to lead to differences. Our sense of identity, as Indonesians, draws upon this richness of cultures and faiths, whether or not a person feels tangible links to them.

The ethnic Chinese can appreciate and respect the Islamic New Year just as much as Muslims can enjoy the colorful festivities of Imlek.

Because whether it is the Year of the Rooster or 1426 Hijriah on the Islamic calender, everyone is commemorating and praying for a safe and prosperous 2005.


The Jakarta Post
Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Sowing seeds of social harmony in Year of the Rooster
By Pandaya, Jakarta

The newfound freedom for ethnic Chinese-Indonesians to openly celebrate their Lunar New Year (Imlek) seems to have started a new dazzling tradition over the past couple of years.

This year, as the economically powerful ethnic Chinese minority anxiously wait for the rooster to crow on Wednesday, new year fever has already swept the urban community.

Glitzy shopping malls vie with each other for the most elaborate red and gold displays of Chinese cultural symbols. Customers are spoiled with holiday discounts and free cultural shows, from lion and dragon dances and burning-red lanterns to acrobatics.

My eight-year-old son, a Javanese, has already made appointments with his Chinese-Indonesian buddies for home visits, hoping to get angpao, that small red envelope with some money in it, and moon cakes from the host parents. For exchanging pleasantries, he has learned two key words: Gong Xi Fa Chai and xie xie.

Upscale hotels are also competing for more guests by offering anything from discounted rates to special Chinese cuisine prepared by the best Chinese chefs.

Chinese-Indonesians can thank former president Megawati Soekarnoputri for making Imlek a public holiday in 2002.

The move was a milestone in the long struggle to end the abhorrent discrimination against Chinese-Indonesians.

The move is one of the best remembered legacies, if not the only legacy, of Megawati.

The infamous anti-Chinese rioting of May 13 to May 15, 1998, that preluded the fall of president Soeharto highlighted the plight of Chinese-Indonesians. There was an outpouring of sympathy from around the globe, pushing subsequent administrations to revoke some of discriminatory laws.

Looking further back, anti-Chinese sentiment was fanned by the anti-Communist propaganda which swept Soeharto to power in 1966. The Chinese were seen as communist sympathizers and thus public enemy number one.

Although much still has to be done, Chinese-Indonesians now enjoy greater freedom than they did seven years ago. Amid the political euphoria of 1999, ethnic Chinese set up their own political party. Lately, dreadfully expensive "national plus schools" have begun using Mandarin as one of the official languages of instruction along with English. Chinese characters grace public places. Chinese-language radio stations fill the airwaves. All this would have been unimaginable in the Soeharto era.

But celebrations may be premature. Beneath the euphoria runs a strong undercurrent of delicate issues.

Despite the formal scrapping of discriminatory laws, complaints of extortion persist when ethnic Chinese face the state bureaucracy. Prejudice and resentment remains among the "indigenous" population. A reputation of being easy with the wallet when dealing with bureaucratic procedures further complicates matters.

They have become especially easy targets because of their tendency to stick together in the same housing and business complexes, while often maintaining little communication with their pribumi neighbors beyond business needs.

This "money buys all" perception eclipses all the generosity this small but wealthy segment of society often shows. Ethnic Chinese account for six to 10 million of the country's population. Nevertheless it is believed that they "control" some two-thirds of the country's economy.

The perception of exclusivity is also harbored by pribumi employees of companies controlled by Chinese-Indonesian entrepreneurs. It is common knowledge that many key positions are "reserved" for fellow Chinese-Indonesians.

No concrete study has been conducted to support these claims. However, it would be unwise for an ethnic Chinese boss to summarily dismiss these allegations.

Discrimination, nepotism, corruption and collusion are the enemy of all -- irrespective of ethnicity.

When the rooster starts to crow tomorrow, and you perhaps proclaim your new year resolutions, put nurturing the seeds of racial harmony on the list.

A happy and prosperous new year to all!

The author is a staff writer of The Jakarta Post.


The Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Indonesia's Chinese Embrace New Role
By Jay Solomon - Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

Medan, Indonesia -- Textile trader Shie Hok Lai lost everything when the tsunami destroyed his shop and home in Indonesia's Aceh province on Dec.26, but the ethnic Chinese businessman is getting ready to start over again -- in the same place.

In a bustling refugee camp in this Sumatra city, Mr. Shie, 28 years old, has signed a formal contract with an Indonesian-Chinese self-help organization, Tolong Menolong, promising to return to the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, in exchange for food, transportation and 500,000 rupiah, or about $55, in cash.

"By signing this, I'm volunteering to rebuild our community," says Mr. Shie between puffs on a clove cigarette. "But I also agreed not to come back to [the refugee camp in] Medan."

The relief effort that is helping Mr. Shie return to Aceh provides one clear example of how life has changed for Indonesia's minority Chinese community. It has been openly and actively organizing assistance for Chinese victims of the tsunami. During the 32-year rule of former Indonesian strongman Suharto, which ended in 1998, Chinese were banned from organizing politically and faced severe restrictions on communal or community activity. Promotion of Chinese language or identity weren't allowed.

But thanks to changes since Mr. Suharto's fall, a group called Tolong Menolong -- a Chinese self-help group running quietly since the 1970s -- is operating openly and working with the Indonesian military and government agencies. Its refugee camp is full of Chinese-language signs.

"If this had happened during Suharto's time, this refugee camp would have been isolated, with no government support," says Tjhin Tjung Maow, the organizer of Tolong Menolong's relief operation in Medan. "Now, there's fresh air. All channels are open."

During the Suharto era, ethnic Chinese -- who account for less than 4% of Indonesia's 220 million people -- were often treated as second-classcitizens. But since 1998, Chinese have become a growing political and cultural factor in multiethnic Indonesia, which is home to the world's largest Muslim population.

Chinese have formed political parties, been appointed to senior government cabinet posts and gained prominence in the arts and the media. Chinese culture, meanwhile, is again flourishing across the archipelago, with Chinese-language schools, Mandarin script and lion dances becoming increasingly common sights.

In the wake of the tsunami, groups like Tolong Menolong -- whose name is Indonesian for "mutual assistance" -- have also taken a central role getting Chinese in Aceh back on their feet. The group has tapped Indonesia's affluent Chinese merchant class to raise large sums of cash for relief operations, though Tolong Menolong declines to give the figure. Overseas Chinese groups from Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan have sent doctors and counselors to Tolong Menolong's refugee camp in Medan, 600 kilometers southeast of Banda Aceh.

The return of Aceh's Chinese business people is seen as essential to the province's recovery, say relief organizations and local officials. Although they make up less than 5% of the population of northern Sumatra, ethnic Chinese form the backbone of the entire region's distribution and trading networks. In Banda Aceh, Chinese merchants are estimated to own 50% to 70% of the private-sector businesses, and their companies direct the trade of essential goods like cooking oil, rice and coffee.

Thousands of Indonesia's Chinese fled Banda Aceh and the western coast of Aceh province to Medan and Jakarta in the days after the tsunami struck. Many tell stories of having their shops and homes looted, on top of the substantial damage wreaked by the powerful earthquake and ensuing waves. At least 1,000 ethnic Chinese died, according to Tolong Menolong.

Most of the Indonesian-Chinese survivors sought refuge in one of Medan's main Chinese quarters, known as Metal Street. Here, Mr. Tjhin and his son Adriadi opened a camp for survivors and assisted in their evacuation from Aceh aboard trucks and Indonesian military transport planes. Tolong Menolong and other Chinese organizations provided medicine and food to the survivors.

The elder Mr. Tjhin was himself a refugee from Aceh almost 40 years ago and says he felt obliged to help the tsunami victims. In late 1965, Indonesian army forces rounded up thousands of ethnic-Chinese from Aceh and forced them to board ships headed back to mainland China. They were accused of being loyal to Beijing's communist government and of aiding the Indonesian Communist Party in a bid to gain power in Jakarta. The forced departures followed an abortive coup attempt the Indonesian military blamed on the communists; while some Chinese were deported, others were among the huge numbers of people -- some estimates are in the hundreds of thousands -- killed in the bloody aftermath.

But Indonesia-born Mr. Tjhin, now 75 years old, never left. He managed to stay in Medan and eventually developed the sprawling Chinese enclave on Metal Street. He also quietly helped form Tolong Menolong -- as a support networkfor ethnic Chinese in Sumatra. The group worked on property disputes and trade issues and assisted Chinese during times of unrest, as in May 1998 when mobs razed and looted hundreds of Chinese-owned shops and homes in Medan during turmoil that spawned Mr. Suharto's resignation.

"For three days, we focused on defending ourselves," says Adriadi Tjihn about Tolong Menolong's efforts in 1998. He says Metal Street residents armed themselves with Molotov cocktails and other weapons to keep attackers at bay. "Since then, all the Chinese [in Medan] started to fight back," he says.

At the height of the tsunami crisis, about 7,000 ethnic-Chinese were housed and fed in homes, shop houses, and community centers in and around Metal Street. Medical volunteers from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia arrived to help at the camp. And Chinese Buddhist, Christian and Confucian organizations also set up relief centers.

But the Tjihns are now focused on moving back to Aceh refugees that remain on Metal Street. They say they know from personal experience how brief stints as refugees can unexpectedly turn into permanent relocations. "We are making it clear that these aren't permanent camps," says 38 year-old Adriadi Tjhin, who was born in a refugee camp. "We want to get them back to business."

The process of returning begins at a process center in Tolong Menolong's main refugee complex where men wait in line to sign contracts. Many refugees remain wary of looters and the threat of disease in Banda Aceh. But men who sign pledges to go back will act as scouts to assess the damage. They are provided with cash, transportation and temporary shelter in Aceh's Buddhist temples. In return, they promise not to come back to live on Metal Street.

Lai Fuk Nyen, 60, is one scout preparing for his first visit to Banda Aceh since the tsunami. Mr. Lai didn't lose any close family members, but says his home and business were destroyed. He guardedly holds out hope that he can rebuild his construction business by winning some of the billions of dollars in contracts the Indonesian government is expected to offer to rebuild Aceh.

"If the Chinese people don't go back, the economy won't be functioning well," says Mr. Lai. "If they go back, there will be an improvement."

That sentiment is shared in Banda Aceh, where some ethnic-Chinese businessmen and local Acehnese traders are beginning to map reconstruction plans. The Dharma Bhatia Buddhist temple in the city's central business district serves as a kind of halfway house for Tolong Menolong's program. The streets outside the temple are still clogged with mud and flotsam, but inside an increasing number of visitors discuss business and the future. The back of the temple is being converted into a larger settlement center.

On a recent afternoon, a Muslim Acehnese businessman named Syarafudin came to the temple to see one of his oldest Chinese friends and learn about his family. The two friends, who had lost contact, discuss ways to revitalize Banda Aceh. "It's true that the Chinese run the economy here," Mr. Syarafudin says. "We need to find ways to bring them back."

With Tolong Menolong's help, Joanes Jony Pandy and his wife Maria also have returned to Banda Aceh to reopen their optical shop. "Half of our customers are now dead," says a sad-eyed Mr. Pandy. "Yeah, but half of them are still alive," adds his wife.

Write to Jay Solomon at

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