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Explaining anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia

Anti-Chinese Violence in Indonesia, 1996-1999. By Jemma Purdey. Published by Asian Studies Association of Australia, Southern Asia Publication Series, 2006. ISBN 9971-69-332-1. $35.00  website

Explaining anti-Chinese sentiment in IndonesiaThe ethnic Chinese in Indonesia have been the source of a number of sociological and political academic writings in Australia, but time and time again we see that only when an issue hits the mainstream media does it enter the consciousness of the community at large.

Early in 1999 the issue of ethnic Chinese began to feature in the international news when local non-governmental organisations broke the silence on the rapes of mostly ethnic Chinese women during the May 1998 riots, riots initially widely reported for human fatalities among demonstrating students, and for the devastation of business districts in some Indonesian cities.

The issue then took on a life of its own. In Australia, however, it did not spread far beyond Indonesian-interest groups, though enough for some people to believe that ethnic Chinese were being murdered, or at least victimised and chased out of the country. These people tended to become confused when they went to visit Jakarta and found Chinese-looking people going about their business, seemingly without fear.

Jemma Purdey’s book, Anti-Chinese Violence in Indonesia, 1996-1999, goes a long way towards placing the events in their correct social and political context.

To begin with, ethnic Chinese in Indonesia are not an homogenous entity. While it is a fact that most came from the southern regions of China, these regions are sufficiently diverse in culture that they each have their own languages, tastes in cuisine, prominence in collective skills, and perhaps even collective ethos and temperament.

And they did not migrate to Indonesia at the same time, to the same place, or for the same purpose. Generations of Chinese-descended people can be found in the poorer areas on the outskirts of Jakarta for example. In the meantime, there have been families, some descendants of Dutch-appointed Chinese Captains, living comfortably in various parts of Java. They are not all actively involved in business as is popularly stereotyped, either. And inevitably, there are widely-differing degrees of integration into local communities.

While she focuses on events occuring between 1996-1999, Purdey also takes the reader back to instances of violence in earlier periods, providing context. In fact, each incident or explosion of violence is placed in a social-political background, though without always providing a clear-cut explanation as to why it happened.

There are instances documented where flare-ups had nothing to do with the ethnic Chinese, yet eventually angry crowds turned to shops and businesses owned by the ethnic Chinese to loot and destroy. This often happened, particularly during Soeharto’s New Order government, where the opportunities for ethnic Chinese to move and develop had been effectively narrowed to the fields of trade and business, where they were forced to pay exorbitant fees for various services and higher-than-average interest for any business loans.

Explaining anti-Chinese sentiment in IndonesiaPurdey describes how Soeharto and his ministers, while renting their power to the ethnic Chinese ostensibly for their protection, continually portrayed these people as indiscriminate in their desires, uncaring about indigenous communities, and corrupt - thus isolating them, and marking them out out as people to be despised and resented. So while the masses were unable to show their anger at corrupt officials, they were able to transpose this anger on to other targets, knowing that they could do that with a degree of impunity. This resentment of economic success may explain why it was mostly the properties of ethnic Chinese which were often the focus of destruction, rather than people.

Purdey says, however, that the May 1998 violence was outside the usual pattern. Eye-witness testimonies indicate that it was coordinated and carried out with almost military-precision, and just as important to note, the number of indigenous people who died in the fires that engulfed the shops which they had been 'encouraged' to invade and loot, is most likely far greater than that of the women raped during the ensuing chaos. The number of rape victims is still being debated.

Other scholars and observers have argued that anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia is not a fact of ethnicity, but rather of economic privilege, for example. Purdey insists that it is. While other contributing factors such as religion (very few ethnic Chinese are adherents of Islam, the religion of the majority of the population), cultural traits, ethos and economic advantage of some may have marked them out, ethnicity is (obviously) shared by all ethnic Chinese. Many who had properties destroyed in various riots had lived in Indonesia for generations, but this fact was overlooked by the rioters.

Of course not all indigenous Indonesians wish destruction on the ethnic Chinese. There have been numerous instances where, seeing the angry crowds coming toward their homes, the ethnic Chinese rushed to their indigenous neighbours seeking protection, which was generously given.

Considering the widespread prejudice, and the implied message of relative impunity, it is credit to the humanity of the indigenous population that only a minority gave in to their lower urges and took part in the violence. Unfortunately this minority had the capacity, as has been proven, to cause untold grief and damage. Purdey's book is an important account of what is, to this day, an issue that will not go away.



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