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The Night Jakarta Burned

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The Night Jakarta Burned

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“When I looked outside through a gap in the curtains, I could see downtown Jakarta burning.” This is how an eye witness described the fires set by looters in the anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia that shocked the world in 1998. How do those who went through the horrors of ethnic violence remember this dark chapter of Indonesian history?

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The Night Jakarta Burned

By Richard Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 647 )

Editors' Note: This article is translated from an op-ed from CommonWealth Magazine.

The anti-Chinese riots that happened twenty years ago severely damaged Indonesian society. Several thousand factories, shops and homes of ethnic Chinese were gutted in Jakarta alone. The tragedy of ethnic Chinese women being raped shocked the international community even more. Consequently, many ethnic Chinese fled to other countries.

However, in Indonesia’s secluded political context, these events were swept under the carpet, becoming a part of history that “everyone knows about but no one discusses.”.

Interviewed for this article was Ruth Artha, whose friends call Sioe, her Chinese name. She was 35 and working in the food and beverage industry in Jakarta when the riots erupted. The following is the edited interview:


In 1998, I was living in the south of Jakarta. I am actually still living there now.

At the time, my children were still small. Their school was located in Citraland, right behind where the riots erupted. I remember that I was driving the car delivering goods when I received a phone call from the school urging me to pick up my four children as quickly as possible.

In the beginning, I had no idea what had happened and didn’t immediately go deal with the situation. I learned only when I reached the school that all of the other students had already returned home; only my four children were still there.

While on the road, I had seen black smoke from burning things, but I was so focused on delivering my goods that I didn’t give it much thought. I had no clue at all what had happened.

I learned that violence had erupted only after watching the news upon returning home in the evening. I also realized only then how dangerous it was for an ethnic Chinese woman to be in the streets with four children in tow, and how lucky I was to have returned home safely.

Terror that Stays

To be honest, I don't remember the exact date when the incident happened. What I do remember is that even my Javanese ex-husband was scared on his way home. It wasn’t just the ethnic Chinese; all those who weren’t among the troublemakers were frightened.

After watching the news, people in our community volunteered to take turns patrolling the neighborhood day and night to protect our security and report [any incidents]. We not only locked all our doors and windows, we also closed all the curtains. We stayed like this without setting foot out of the house for two entire weeks. Fortunately, we had stocked enough food in the house so that we didn’t need to go out.

Looking outside through a gap in the curtains, I could see downtown Jakarta burning. The blaze continued for two days. Inside our home, the only channel to get information about the situation outside was through the news, but each time we watched the news, we became only more afraid. After watching these reckless hoodlums loot all of the valuables and then use torches to burn the things they couldn’t take with them, we were even more reluctant to leave the house.

Was I scared that I would be killed if I went outside? No, that wasn’t the case either. God is dwelling in my heart, and I knew he would protect me.

It's only that, as a mother, I couldn’t help worrying about my children. Even today, this terror and worry remains hidden in my heart; I am afraid that something bad might happen to my children.

Half a year after the incident, we went to Bali for a vacation. Only then did I dare to let the children walk in the streets alone without worrying.

I Fear History Could Repeat Itself

You ask me if I feel that Indonesia is not safe enough, whether I think about moving abroad. The answer used to be no.

Before 2017, I had never even entertained the idea of leaving Indonesia to live in another country. But then (former Jakarta Governor and ethnic Chinese) Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was sentenced to prison, and the new governor, Anies Baswedan, scares me. I fear he will let an incident like that of 1998 happen again! (Editor’s Note: Anies stirred controversy when stating in his first speech after taking office that it is time for the pribumi or native Indonesians to be the hosts in their own land.)

Aside from that, his extremist remarks on social media are frightening. As an ethnic Chinese woman, I can’t stand these racist remarks. Such statements make me very uncomfortable; I can’t believe that someone could say such things.

As I remember it, the intensity of the ethnic tensions in Jakarta continued to decline after the 1998 incident, and [the situation] improved. Isn’t the fact that so many non-Muslims  were able to courageously express their views a case in point?

Ethnic confrontation surged again in May of 2017; anyone with a discerning eye could see that this could be attributed to the manipulation [of public opinion] during the election.

I think that Basuki being jailed for “blasphemy” is a very outrageous verdict. With this law, it is very easy to frame someone, and I feel that this unreasonable law should have been changed a long time ago.

I also believe that religion should be separated from education in the first place.

All schools should guide students to get to know every religion; children would then be able to learn how to embrace people of different religious beliefs and ethnicities, and Indonesia could become more united.

My children attend an ordinary school, not a church-run school or a Muslim school. There they will be able to acquire more neutral knowledge and views, and they won’t develop biased opinions or be as easily provoked.

Hope Rests on New Generation of Political Leaders

Although we harbor this fear and discontent in our hearts, we still keep a very positive attitude toward Indonesia's future.

After Suharto (who served as Indonesian president from 1967 to 1998) stepped down, the country’s democratization gave rise to great hopes among the Indonesian people, and [access to] education gradually became more common.

I don’t have the slightest confidence in political figures from the Suharto era. I do trust Indonesia’s young, new generation of political leaders. They are better educated and have better administrative skills.

As for Indonesia changing, I could illustrate this with an example: Our maid already owns a house and a car. In the past, this would have been a rare exception. More people can now improve their lives because in Jakarta public schools are free and the entire family receives an allowance.

Many people think that life in Indonesia is very dangerous for women of Chinese heritage, but I will not move away from this country. Should ethnic discrimination and religious bias resurge in Jakarta in the future, I would at most move away from Jakarta and return to Surabaya for retirement!

Translated from the Chinese article by Susanne Ganz


Additional Reading

Rebuilding a Scarred Civilization
♦ Malaysia's New Prime Minister Talks about China-Taiwan Relations
♦ 'Staying in Taiwan is good, But Returning to My Homeland is Better'

This article presents the opinion or perspective of the original author / organization, which does not represent the standpoint of CommonWealth magazine.

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