Ethnic Chinese key to Aceh fix-up

Minority Chinese own an estimated 60 percent of Banda Aceh's shops, but many fled after the tsunami.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In a crammed row of storefronts, only Joy Optikal, an eyeglasses shop, has reopened on a dusty street of the tsunami-battered city of Banda Aceh.

"Live or die, I will stay in Aceh," says a defiant Maria Herawati, who has run the store with her husband, Joannes Jony Pandy, for 16 years.

The two are part of Banda Aceh's small ethnic Chinese minority. Unlike an estimated 6,000 other Chinese who left, they decided to stay behind in the city after the Dec. 26 tsunami that killed some 240,000 people in Indonesia.

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Ethnic Chinese are the heart of Aceh's trading community. How fast they return and set up shop will help determine the speed of recovery in the province hardest-hit by the tsunami.

Mrs. Herawati, whose family has survived wars, revolution, and persecution since migrating from China about a century ago, says she is determined to start business again, selling eyeglasses to the citizens of Banda Aceh.

In an interview last month, her husband recounts the story of standing guard on their shop's roof over five days and nights while looters pillaged their neighbor's deserted shops. "Either I was going to die, or they were going to die," says Mr. Pandy. "People thought I was crazy." The two are bitter that police and military officers stood by as looters swept through the city's trading district.

After braving the deadly flood waters, the two now face a much longer challenge: rebuilding a business in a city where up to 40 percent of the population perished in the tsunami.

Aceh's economy will benefit from an aid effort expected to cost $4.5 billion over the next five years, some of that distributed by Western nongovernmental organizations and companies. And the biggest industrial enterprise in Aceh, the PT Arun natural gas facility, is operated by a US company, ExxonMobil Corp., along with a Japanese partner and the Indonesian government.

But the small ethnic Chinese businesses such as Joy Optikal have formed a vital trading network linking economic sectors in Aceh, and indeed much of Southeast Asia. Business conglomerates founded by ethnic Chinese tycoons dominate Indonesia's stock exchanges and much of the economy. In Banda Aceh, ethnic Chinese own an estimated 60 percent of the shops and distribute everything from spare parts to business loans.

"If they [the ethnic Chinese] don't come back, the economy here will die," said Udin, a Muslim construction worker taking refuge in a Buddhist temple.

The temple, a few hundred yards from Joy Optikal, is a way station for Tolong Menolong, an organization that has been helping Aceh's estimated 200,000 ethnic Chinese. In the city of Medan, hundreds of Acehnese Chinese are living in a camp known as Metal Street, set up by the organization.

A scapegoated community

Tolong Menolong, founded in 1970, also has its roots in political turmoil and exile. Chin Chung Mao, Tolong Menolong's 75-year old coordinator and one of its founders, says the flood of homeless people in the days after the tsunami evokes painful memories of another exodus 40 years ago.

Mr. Chin's family fled Aceh in 1965, accused of sympathy with Beijing amidst anti-Communist fervor sweeping Indonesia after an alleged coup attempt in faraway Jakarta by Indonesia's Communist party, the PKI. "This disaster, the refugees, it all reminded me," he says.

Chin himself set up camp on Metal Street in Medan in the 1960s, where hundreds of homeless Acehnese Chinese families are now camping. Tolong Menolong was founded soon afterwards.

The organization has since helped to bring in doctors from Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore to treat tsunami victims. Businesses with a large number of ethnic Chinese employees, such as PT Astra Internasional, Indonesia's largest automotives maker, have also donated resources to the relief effort.

The ethnic Chinese, who make up around 4 percent of the country's 220-million people, have often become political scapegoats under Indonesian governments and also the former Dutch colonial regime, partly due to their prosperity and their relatively small numbers.

But Tolong Menolong, which now boasts a network of 400 families, has flourished under new cultural freedoms that blossomed after Indonesia took a stumbling step towards democracy when authoritarian President Suharto fell from power in 1998.

"We Chinese were harshly suppressed" under Suharto's 32-year rule, says Chin, speaking a week after the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration known as Imlek.

Under Suharto, open displays of Chinese culture, such as calligraphy or language schools, were banned, and many ethnic Chinese were pressured to take Muslim names.

By contrast, since 2000, the community has openly celebrated Imlek. A national television network features a Mandarin language program. Chin says the residents at Metal Street took a brief respite at Imlek with traditional celebrations. Even the nonethnic-Chinese governor arrived to distribute the traditional Ang Pao- red, cash-filled envelopes that usher in prosperity.

Tolong Menolong is now gently persuading thousands of displaced people to return to their homes and businesses in Aceh and start again. It is offering food and small cash grants in return for a pledge from recipients not to return to Metal Street.

A town half full

Back in Banda Aceh, Pandy says he believes that people whose families survived and whose businesses weren't completely destroyed would return.

"Half of our customers are dead," he said last month, his eyes bloodshot and bleary after weeks of stress. "Half of them are still alive!" said Herawati, clad in her pajamas and snapping orders at employees.

Nearly a month later, a few more shops close by have opened, but business has not picked up. Pandy wants to pack up and move to Jakarta, but Maria's resolve to stay has not waned.

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