The sensitive issue of overseas Chinese in Asian countries has been underscored in a wave of communal violence in Indonesia. Rumors that a Chinese had tortured and killed his Indonesian servant recently provoked two days of anti-Chinese rioting in the South Celebes city of Ujung Pandan.
According to one report 171 Chinese-owned stores were wrecked during the first wave of rioting. Order was said to have been restored after investigation showed no signs of torture on the servant's body. But the next night another wave of rioting erupted. Local authorities imposed a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.
The Chinese issue has become so volatile that extra tight security procedures were instituted at the University of North Sumatra in Medan this week. Paramilitary students barred Chinese students and lecturers from the campus -- after two students were reported to have been held up at gunpoint in Medan.
A Jakarta newspaper, Sinar Pagi, quoted an unidentified student as saying the paramilitary action was taken to prevent eruption of anti-Chinese violence. The Medan incident followed two days after the anti-Chinese rioting in Ujung Pandan.
In Indonesia, which has a population of more than 130 million, resentment against a minority of some 4 million overseas Chinese is never far from the surface. The Chinese are often resented for their economic power as shopkeepers and traders.
Their sometimes hard-driving business practices occasionally arouse distrust among more easygoing Indonesians. The Chinese are often blamed for involvement in the abortive 1965 pro-communist coup that eventually led to the toppling of President Sukarno from power.
Given this background and atmosphere an incident or rumor -- can easily spark demonstrations and violence.
And any Indonesian government must be careful to prevent the impression that it is too close to the Chinese -- lest this trigger antigovernment agitation drawing on anti-Chinese feeling.
Critics of the government can always try to reap political capital by accusing government figures of shady economic deals with Chinese business interests. Bribery in Indonesia is hardly limited to Chinese -- but anti-Chinese agitators sometimes try to give this impression.
What is difficult to assess is the exact relationship between these latest outbursts and the government's current program to naturalize nearly 1 million overseas Chinese by Aug. 17. The simplification of naturalization procedures affects some 820,000 Chinese with Peking passports and 80,000 holding Taiwan documents. The program, if successful, would largely end the noncitizenship status of many overseas Chinese, allay anxieties over their separateness, and thus perhaps pave the way for resumption of full diplomatic relations with China. These were downgraded when ambassadors were withdrawn following the abortive 1965 coup.
In the Indonesian context any program such as this highlights once again the controversial question of whether overseas Chinese are a persecuted minority or a special interest group allowed unfair economic benefits.
Though the relationship is difficult to establish, some observers think it may have contributed to a climate of opinion that encouraged the latest outbreaks.