The Eternally Blamed

The weary chinese woman sits in the back of her small bicycle shop peering through the half-closed doors that lead onto Balung's crowded main street. She's worried that "they" will come again. Hardly a minute passes that she doesn't flash back to the morning of Jan. 15. The memory is always the same: women screaming, angry men running toward her shop waving axes and wooden clubs. "I tried to shut the doors, but I was panicking," she says, her hands shaking. "The top rail got jammed and I had to hit it with a broom." The woman, who doesn't want her name published for fear of reprisals, grabbed her terrified 19-year-old daughter. They huddled together on the staircase, trembling as the crowd slammed the metal doors and as rocks smashed through the windows of her home upstairs. "My daughter kept crying," she says. "We prayed." Their terror ended when the mob moved on to ransack other shops in the East Java town whose owners couldn't close their doors in time.

Anger is boiling over in Indonesia, as prices of staple goods rise 50%, 70%, even 200% overnight. Though the root causes of the food scarcities and soaring prices are complex, one group is all-too-easy to blame: the 5 million ethnic Chinese Indonesians who tend to dominate commerce nationwide, buying, selling and distributing to the country's 202 million people everything from rice to schoolbooks to motorcycles. In the past month alone, anti-Chinese riots have erupted in dozens of cities and towns across the scattered archipelago. As Indonesians struggle to comprehend an economic crisis that in just a few months has wiped out 30 years of growth, the search is on for a scapegoat. "We little people don't understand where this crisis has come from," says a rickshaw driver who earns 20 cents a day in South Sulawesi's riot-hit city of Ujung Pandang. "Our thoughts automatically run to the Chinese."

Though Chinese-bashing has become a knee-jerk response in Indonesia to economic problems, things haven't always been so tense. When the first Chinese merchants and artisans arrived in the 13th century, relations with local Indonesians were largely harmonious. That began to change about 400 years later with the arrival of Dutch colonialists. In their apartheid system, the Dutch employed the Chinese as intermediaries and tax collectors, sowing the seeds of distrust that persist to this day. As successive waves of refugees fleeing war and famine in China touched down on Indonesia's shores, the animosity occasionally erupted into violent assaults against the minority.

The roots of the current conflict trace in part to 1959, when President Sukarno banned Chinese from rural areas to give indigenous Indonesians control over trade in the villages. Indonesia's Chinese "became much more urban, much more economically dominant," says historian Ong Hok Ham of the University of Indonesia. During the terror of 1966 thousands of Chinese were killed as communist sympathizers. Among the citizenry, inter-ethnic tension has taken a turn for the worse during the past few years as disparities of wealth become more glaring and avenues of political expression more restricted. Several riots in recent years have left dozens of churches, houses and shops destroyed by rampaging Indonesians. "Racial hatred has existed before," says Alengkong, an ethnic-Chinese pastor in Jember, West Java, who keeps a packed bag at home with valuables and important documents in case he needs suddenly to flee. "We didn't feel too worried up until now."

The sparks that now set emotions ablaze vary from town to town. In Ujung Pandang last September, a mentally ill Chinese man named Benny hacked to death a young Muslim girl. Benny was killed on the spot by a Muslim mob. But the next day's newspapers reported wrongly that the girl had been walking home from an Islam class, injecting an ethnic and religious element into what had been an isolated incident. That set off a three-day disturbance that left more than 1,000 shops and homes damaged or destroyed. Since the rupiah started to plunge in January and prices began to soar, it has taken only the smallest of incidents to ignite fires elsewhere. In the West Java town of Jatiwangi last Thursday, a riot grew out of a protest by rickshaw drivers over a 100% increase in tire prices. Joined by bus drivers angry about the rise in prices of vehicle spare parts, the mob destroyed Chinese shops and torched houses. And while many Chinese retailers are merely trying to cope with their own rising costs, some shopkeepers are no doubt inviting retribution by trying to profit excessively from the hardship. Regardless, the attitude among many Indonesians is to distrust-and blame-the Chinese as a whole. "The Muslims of Ujung Pandang would prefer it if the Chinese left this city," says Asri Hidayat Mahulau, leader of a small mosque. But he adds: "As Muslims, we wish there were another way besides rioting."

Many Chinese, particularly those with money, aren't waiting to see if another way can be found. Thousands have already sought refuge in Bali, storing their cash and gold or buying land on the resort-filled, Hindu-dominated island. Others are sending family members with suitcases full of dollars to Hong Kong or Singapore, further decimating Indonesia's economy. Of the more than $40 billion that is estimated to have been taken out of the country in recent months, more than half is thought to belong to Indonesia's Chinese minority. But most Chinese lack the wealth to pick up and move and, increasingly, they fear the worst. In the darkened bicycle shop in Balung, a small woman is still listening for the terrible sound of breaking glass.