In May 1998, during two deadly days of racially fueled mayhem, rioters killed 1,000 people and raped 87 women, most of Chinese descent. Others cowered in their homes as the rape squads, reportedly led by army thugs, roamed the streets of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.
Many of the 5 million ethnic Chinese here, who represent a scant 2% of the population in this predominantly Muslim nation of 248 million, have for years awaited the results of a government investigation of the attacks. Twelve years later, no arrests have been made.
The inquiry stalled years ago when investigators said they failed to find hard evidence of military involvement. The Indonesian government has recently suggested that it will no longer pursue the matter, despite lingering suspicions that the riots were instigated by soldiers influenced by the nation’s political leadership.
Without an official report to the contrary, many Indonesians question whether the rapes even occurred.
For ethnic Chinese, long viewed as scapegoats for Indonesia’s economic woes, life after the 1998 riots has been bittersweet. On one hand, more Chinese Indonesians have run for public office and a number of discriminatory laws have been repealed. Yet many still feel like unwanted outsiders, their community cast as a greedy merchant class with allegiances to Indonesia and China.
Without question, analysts say, there has been progress since the ouster of President Suharto, whose government required ethnic Chinese to adopt Indonesian names and banned Chinese characters and festivals.
“The lot of ethnic Chinese here has greatly improved since Suharto, but that doesn’t mean the riots’ underlying problems have been resolved,” said Leo Suryadinata, a professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University who focuses on Chinese Indonesian issues. “Issues of poverty, ethnic tension and a gap between rich and poor that led to the violence are still very much alive.”
Many say the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has further marginalized ethnic Chinese. In one rural province, clerics recently disrupted a Chinese parade, arguing that the noise of firecrackers and running dragons interfered with Muslim prayer rites.
“Many Indonesians still believe people with Chinese blood keep close allegiances to Beijing,” said Andy Yentriyani, a leader of the National Commission on Violence Against Women. “The idea is that any freedoms or authority given the ethnic Chinese will come back to harm Indonesia.”
Discrimination against ethnic Chinese here dates back centuries to the Dutch colonial era, when thousands were killed or forced into ghettos. Ethnic Chinese were also attacked in the Indonesian government’s anti-communist purges of the mid-1960s.