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Uneasy Calm Restored In Indonesia Rioting Leaves At Least 3 Dead; Ethnic Chinese Traumatized

Sun., Feb. 15, 1998

Mobs laughed and cheered as they looted and robbed. Others set fire to shops while their frightened ethnic Chinese owners ran for their lives.

Rocks flew through the smoky air and crowds picked over piles of merchandise - groceries, cookware, clothing - dumped in the street.

By the time troops restored order Saturday after a day of rioting across Indonesia that left at least three people dead, almost every member of this town’s Chinese community had fled or taken sanctuary at the police station.

Thousands ran wild in at least a dozen places Friday in the worst violence since Indonesia’s economic troubles began, targeting Chinese traders they blame for rising prices. Inflation and unemployment have soared since the currency, the rupiah, collapsed in July.

The economic crisis - Indonesia’s worst in 30 years - has ignited centuries-old ethnic and religious tensions in the world’s fourth-most populous nation.

More than 200 rioters were arrested, police said, and sporadic looting continued in some areas Saturday.

One man was trampled to death Friday by a rampaging crowd of more than 3,000 in Losari, 125 miles east of Jakarta. Two others were shot and killed by soldiers in a nearby district after the rioters threatened them with steel bars, Maj. Gen. Mardiyanto, military chief for central Java, told the official Antara news agency.

Hundreds of houses and stores were burned or smashed. Three Chinese churches were raided and ransacked.

Frightened residents painted “Muslim” on their front doors so rioters wouldn’t mistake their homes as Chinese-owned and attack.

Ethnic Chinese make up about 4 percent of Indonesia’s population of 202 million, which is about 90 percent Muslim.

“We’re still traumatized. My textile shop was burned after we took shelter here,” said Gunawan, a storekeeper who spent the night in the police station at Pamanukan, 55 miles east of Jakarta, with his wife, three children and 40 other Chinese. Like many Indonesians, Gunawan uses only one name.

A fraction of Chinese are among Indonesia’s richest people, but small-town merchants complain they’re being made scapegoats for the nation’s economic troubles.

Although most of the Chinese were born here and have Indonesian names, many are treated as outsiders. They often have been targets since Dutch colonizers allowed Chinese merchants in hundreds of years ago.

“(The rioters) are frustrated because they don’t have food in their stomachs. They need a channel for their anger, so they attack the Chinese,” said Ong Hok Ham, a retired ethnic Chinese history professor.

Historians say many ethnic Chinese were among tens of thousands of people killed in an anti-communist backlash after an alleged leftist coup in 1965.

A heavy security presence brought an uneasy calm to most trouble spots Saturday, but isolated disturbances continued.

Eng Nori, a Chinese woman, said a mob locked her and her two children in a room for two and a half hours and ransacked her shop and home in Sukamandi, 45 miles east of Jakarta. They escaped after the looters left.

“We have to get out town. But we don’t know where to go,” she said.

Dozens of rioters smashed four shops and a bus Saturday in Batang, about 200 miles east of Jakarta.

Rioting flared on the eastern side of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, last month and has moved west toward the capital, Jakarta, as pain from the crisis deepens.

President Suharto ordered the military on Thursday to crack down on activists he accused of harnessing widespread discontent to destabilize the state before a presidential election in March. Suharto, who has governed for 32 years, is expected to win a seventh five-year term.

Tags: unrest

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