What Do the May 1998 Riots Mean for Young Chinese Indonesians?

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What Do the May 1998 Riots Mean for Young Chinese Indonesians?

With handed-down memories, Generation Z tries to answer a question from the past.

What Do the May 1998 Riots Mean for Young Chinese Indonesians?

A demonstrator runs by as looted materials burn during riots in central Jakarta, May 14, 1998.

Credit: AP Photo/Muchtar Zakaria

It was 22 years ago this month when racial violence against Chinese Indonesians broke out in Indonesia. Amid the violence, over 1,000 died and thousands more were bankrupted or fled the country.

People who had not been born then – Generation Z or Gen-Zers — are highly aware of this side of history despite having no direct experience with the event. Supported by their tech savviness and influenced by global movements, young Chinese Indonesians are forming new social alliances and building their own narratives.

They no longer only see race as their sole identity. They are becoming more and more critical of intersectional identity, incorporating class, privilege, gender, and sexual orientation.

Older conversations about racism and discrimination against Chinese Indonesians tend to avoid the class issue, mainly because of the prevalent stereotype that all Chinese Indonesians are wealthy.

But to make the case of their own discrimination, young Chinese Indonesians today will have to break the taboo and talk about class and privilege, researchers say. To beat the ghost, don’t run away; run towards it.

After the fall of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno and his leftist allies, right-wing Chinese Indonesians moved closer to General Suharto, who rose to power following the 1965 communist purge. Suharto then utilized Chinese Indonesian businesses to execute his economic development programs, while actively distinguishing their ethnicity from the so-called “native Indonesians,” or pribumis.

The businesses grew into conglomerations — the likes of Salim Group, Astra International, the Sinar Mas Group, Gudang Garam, Sampoerna and the Lippo Group — all owned by ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs.

Indonesia’s economy grew, but inequality deepened.

When the economic crisis hit in 1998, food shortages and mass unemployment triggered riots that targeted ethnic Chinese throughout Indonesia, mainly in Medan, Jakarta, and Solo. Property and businesses were looted and burned with men, women, and children still inside, while over a hundred women were raped and thrown into the fires. Casualties included both Chinese and non-Chinese.

The memories are painful. Outside of Indonesia, there have been efforts to preserve these memories through art, such as Rani Pramesti’s Chinese Whispers graphic novel, performance, and installations in Australia. Back home, the whispers are far more quiet.

The Diplomat spoke to about a dozen Chinese Indonesians between the ages of 16 and 22 years old in Indonesia, and found that they were aware of the events of May 1998. They, too, felt the sting when stories were passed down in a hushed manner by parents and teachers.

When asked about what to do about the unresolved cases, they are divided. Some strongly believed in pressuring the government for justice; others took a more pessimistic view.

Today, the middle class and the wealthy Chinese Indonesians living in the cities remain segregated. They live in different neighborhoods and go to different schools from the so-called pribumis. They have limited interaction with people outside of their own ethnicity.

Some still experience being called “Cina” (Chinese), a derogatory racist term. Many understand that they belong to a different ethnicity and class than most Indonesians, but are unsure what to do with that knowledge. They do not speak Mandarin and feel out of touch with their ancestors’ culture.

At the highest level, wealthy Chinese Indonesian business elite are again assisting President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s ambition to attract investments and build infrastructure. The conglomerates formed during the Suharto era are alive and well. They remain at the top and are positioning themselves as “the bridge” in contemporary Indonesia-China relations.

As the result, Jokowi’s administration has forged closer ties with Xi Jinping’s China, which the president’s critics claim is giving more advantages to Chinese investors and businesses.

“Those outside of this exclusive group (of business elite) have expressed discontent over the direction of Chinese Indonesian identity politics, and these internal divisions may widen even further in the future,” Indonesian scholar Charlotte Setijadi wrote in a 2016 research paper.

Now with Gen Z in the picture, it does not seem that younger Chinese Indonesians would, or should, stay passive and let their identity be directed by a handful of their older, wealthy counterparts — again.

Thung Ju Lan, a researcher at Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), pointed out that the main gap in Indonesian society now is less about race than it is about class.

“If you compare with the politics in the ‘60s, today’s gap is no longer a divide between the Chinese and the non-Chinese, but between social classes. The wealthy are friends with each other regardless of race; they hang out together in Singapore and whatnot,” Thung said.

Human rights groups have strongly criticized Jokowi’s administration as favoring large businesses — Chinese owned or not — over the people’s welfare.

Hoon Chang Yau, researcher at Universiti Brunei Darussalam, affirmed this view. He said if the average young Indonesian of any ethnicity were to learn anything from the New Order era, it’s that conversations about race and ethnicity must include rejections of economic inequality and of the oppression of other minorities.

“If we want to talk about race, we cannot pretend there is no class issue, because actually a lot of problems are rooted in socioeconomic problems,” he said.

A growing number of Gen-Zers are starting to realize this. Not only they are critical of discrimination they face themselves, but they are also building solidarity with people from other intersections of marginalization.

Kai Mata, 23, is a Chinese Indonesian who has been generating media buzz lately for being the first openly gay musician in Indonesia. In 1998, along with her parents she left Indonesia as a baby for the United States. She came back to Indonesia at 13 years old.

Kai uses music and social media to promote acceptance of gayness. Her Instagram and Twitter accounts are adorned by rainbows. When it comes to her ethnicity, she said she never fully understood it while growing up. When she asked around about the May 1998 riots, she received an underwhelming response.

“A lot of Chinese Indonesians survive in the past because they are quiet and stayed hidden, and a lot of them still moved forward with that rather than speaking up, and we don’t raise our voices for the people in the past that have died,” Kai said.

“From that aspect I think that’s why I’m quite vocal about all aspects of me being Indonesian,” Kai added.

Kevin Ng, 20, coordinates the Aksi Kamisan protest in Perth, Australia, while being a student. Kamisan is a silent protest held every Thursday urging the government to resolve cases of past human rights abuses.

Active in various youth and nonprofit organizations, Ng believed that the issues of class, racism, and discrimination cannot be separated from one another.

“Class struggles is one of the factors creating that (social) friction… Our main enemy right now is capitalism, where Chinese Indonesians are not the only capitalists,” Ng said.

Meanwhile, Jesslyn Tan, 18, busies herself in womens empowerment activism and theater. For her, the most important thing is to start over and build up her heritage again, starting from her generation.

Moving forward, the responsibility for the future is with both sides, Hoon said.

Hoon strongly recommended the education sector be activated to promote multicultural citizenship.

He also pointed at the gaps. While Islamic boarding schools, or pesantren, are scrutinized and expected to foster tolerant teachings, little attention is paid to expensive, private Christian schools.

“They (Christian schools) seem to want Indonesia only for the privilege. They don’t see poverty, they are blinded to differences. They think Indonesia is heaven because they go to Singapore, Bali, and Australia. So (the kids) are being prepared for cosmopolitan lifestyle, and that’s problematic because it doesn’t match the reality of Indonesia,” Hoon said.

To give the past any meaning, young Chinese Indonesians must stand with their non-ethnic Chinese friends, the underprivileged, and all other minorities, and set the course of their own journey. Only then will walls and boxes disappear.

Antonia Timmerman is an independent journalist reporting on Taiwan and Southeast Asian affairs. Follow her on Twitter @timmerman91