Indonesia's Chinese Try To Avoid Being Targets

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The elders of the Buddhist Eng An Kiong temple in Malang, a university city on the Indonesian island of Java, have good reason to take an interest in a Western concept such as public relations. The temple collected money from its mostly Chinese congregation to buy 50 tons of rice and distribute it at the end last month among the city's poor - mostly ethnic Javanese who were celebrating the end of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month.

The donation came at a good time, as many of Indonesia's 200 million people are struggling with rising food prices, shortages, and more than 1.5 million job losses in recent months.

"Maybe it improves our image with the Javanese," says Winarko Tandio, one of the temple elders. "They know we are wealthier than they."

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Indonesia faces the most severe economic crisis since 1965, and Mr. Winarko remembers what the last crisis brought to the country: famine, chaos, and then a failed coup that was blamed on the Communist party and its ethnic Chinese members in particular.

"Thousands of Chinese were murdered," he says. "Muslim youth groups chased us through the streets. Many Chinese closed their shops for months and left the country, back to China."

Many Chinese fear they will be scapegoated again for the current economic downturn. Sudden jumps in the cost of rice, cooking oil, and kerosene have already sparked a series of attacks on Chinese shops, homes, and churches in recent weeks. The region around Malang, home to some of Indonesia's more devout Muslims, has been particularly restless.

"The prices are going up, the salaries don't," says one Chinese shop owner in Pasuruan, a town near Malang where youngsters threw rocks at several Chinese stores last week because the price of kerosene had tripled.

Police and soldiers have quickly quelled most of the riots. Troops blocked off the Eng An Kiong temple just minutes after students took to the streets in January. But Winarko is not sure the Army will be there if unrest spins out of control. Last September, raucous soccer fans ruled the streets for hours as they pelted Chinese shops and churches.

"The soldiers were too scared to show their face," Winarko recalls.

The Chinese make up less than 5 percent of Indonesia's 200 million people but predominate both in the large business conglomerates and the small shops. Just like the Dutch who ruled Indonesia for 300 years, President Suharto and many of his bureaucrats and entrepreneurial army officers have teamed up with Chinese cronies to set up privileged business empires. The situation has made Indonesia's Chinese the prime target of popular frustration for centuries, much like the Jews in Europe.

The recent bouts of attacks are still small compared with the spate of violence in late 1996 and during the election campaign of 1997 that left some 250 churches destroyed and dozens of people dead.

But as the economy continues to deteriorate, many Chinese fear, ethnic tension may worsen as well. "The Chinese live in fear," says a prominent Chinese bank president in Jakarta. "Some of the old generation remember what happened in 1966. They know how scary it was. Some people have moved their families abroad, some hold open plane tickets."

Many Americans and other expatriates in the capital, Jakarta, have also taken such steps. Their wealth and a popular perception that the economic crisis was caused by foreign investors have led them to fear they may be targeted as much as the Chinese. Some have drafted evacuation plans, and all the expatriate schools have stocked up on blankets and food in case riots force children to stay overnight.

Many observers are concerned that mass riots could spark an exodus of the Chinese and their funds, leaving the economy in ruins. Most said, however, that they have no intention of moving to China, which offers many more business opportunities now than in 1966.

"If it gets very bad we'll just go away for a while and we'll wait," a Chinese banker says. Her family's yacht is on standby in the harbor, ready to sail for the family's private island two hours from Jakarta. "But we'll come back."

Most Chinese simply cannot afford to leave. "It's OK for the rich," one young Chinese bank employee says. "They can buy open tickets or send their family abroad. But those, like me, who don't have much money, we just stock up food in our house. And we pray. I was born in Indonesia and I will die in Indonesia."

Chinese Who Don't Live Chinese

Indonesia's Chinese population is different from what many Americans might expect.

In the US, Chinese-Americans have formed many tight-knit communities in large cities, adhering to traditional practices and beliefs such as Confucianism. But in Indonesia, many Chinese - whose ancestors arrived here centuries ago - have assimilated much of the country's culture into their lives.

Chinese Indonesians often marry Javanese and other ethnic groups in the country. And they have adopted Islam or, more often, Christianity.

"Because the Javanese are so anti-Chinese, many Chinese try not to show their Chinese characteristics," said one young Chinese man who works for a US investment bank.

Like many ethnic Chinese, he would speak only if his name was withheld. "Many Chinese became Christian because they thought it would make them less Chinese."

Like many of his relatives, the banker cannot speak a word in any Chinese language. "I feel no association with China, other than genetics," he said. "I didn't even know how to use chopsticks until I went to the United States."

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