KEBUMEN, INDONESIA — Rustadi Rovani saw them a few days before the riot. They were strangers, malevolent-looking men with tattoos on their arms, standing around the street outside his shop.
On Sept. 7 - when they and other men started moving through the business district of this small city on the southern edge of the Indonesian main island of Java - he knew what was coming. "It's always the Chinese shops that they attack."
The men worked methodically, sometimes setting entire stores alight and at other times looting the inventory and burning the rest in piles on the street. Mr. Rustadi and other ethnic Chinese shopkeepers, corroborating news accounts, say only Chinese-owned stores were hit.
Several weeks after the event, with at least a dozen shops in the city charred or shuttered, police officials refused to discuss the rioting.
Rustadi doesn't know why his shop was spared, although he did not stick around to protect it. Instead he took his family to the nearby city of Jogjakarta, where they stayed for 10 days. In late September, they cautiously reopened for business, keeping some of the store's shutters closed in case trouble returned.
Sitting amid rolls of carpeting and shelves of electrical supplies, Rustadi and his wife are still selling hardware and housewares, but with an air of wary resignation. They blame a combination of politics and "social jealousy" for the attack.
Anti-Chinese rioting has occurred all over Java this year, most notably in the country's capital, Jakarta, in mid-May. Roughly 1,200 people were killed in two days of rage prompted by political unrest, economic frustration, and ethnic prejudice.
The Chinese are envied for their business skills - facilitated by easy access to capital and merchandise through family networks - and are manipulated by politicians, Rustadi says. "The government uses Chinese," he adds.
His view is common in Indonesia, where no riot ever seems to take place without the instigation of "strangers." By fomenting instability, the theory goes, unseen forces are creating circumstances where a new government or the military can claim power in the name of restoring peace.
"Wherever I go in Indonesia this could happen," says Rustadi, explaining why he stays in Kebumen. "We could move to Australia, but that would be so difficult. It would be so new and very expensive."