Glodok, the day after the May 1998 riots




Chinese Indonesians are, resembling the patterns of most market-dominant minorities worldwide, merely another epitome of how vulnerable an ethnic minority, controlling a large stake of a nation’s sector either politically or economically, seems to be. They may not experience the nearly gory, unbearable, deeply inhumane persecution as Jews in Europe, or Tutsi in Rwanda, have encountered, but the May 1998 riots remind us about how, in some moments, ‘self-organized criticality’ could anywhere take place, where minor coincidences are accumulated into an unexpected maelstrom beyond our thoughts.

With numbers currently estimated at approximately 10 to 12.5 million, or 4 to 5 percent of Indonesia’s total population, Chinese Indonesians have a control of nearly two-thirds of Indonesian economy, a figure largely envied by some portions of indigenous population, known as pribumi. Exacerbated by Soeharto’s three-decade authoritarian and corrupt rule, where Chinese Indonesian populace had been largely ‘directed’ to control no more than economic, trading, and commercial sectors and have no legitimacy in politics and academic fields, the ‘financial success’ they enjoyed served as agent provocateur for certain political opponents to scapegoat ethnic Chinese in any racially motivated political incidents. Throughout mid-1990s, a multitudinous number of racist cases had occurred in numerous cities and towns in Indonesia. But the worst was yet to come; the 1997/1998 Asian financial crisis, bulk of which was blamed allegedly on ethnic Chinese running the economy unjustly, had the domino effect on the livelihood of this community.

With crisis worsening, social inequality deepening, and political strife widening throughout Indonesia, Chinese Indonesians were frequently objects of the masses’ dissatisfaction. Shops were ransacked and burned, girls raped and mutilated, men burnt alive, household items pillaged, cars and motorcycles set on fire, banks looted, and economy was dead. And all these ‘minor’ happenings accumulated in the bloody month of May 1998. Medan, Jakarta, and Solo, excluding countless cities and towns, suffered the most severe casualties as a consequence of the all-too-brief revolution. Death toll was estimated at 1000; several human rights groups even claimed as many as 5000. Some pointed out that security forces had orchestrated the attacks; some others accused of a ‘foreign intervention’ in the riots; some blamed government’s failure in realizing social equality among its highly diverse nation. Whatever the accusations, the May tragedy had left a dark chapter on our country’s epoch of history.


A journalist recalls the pictures a photographer took in Glodok, a predominantly Chinese district in West Jakarta, exactly one day after the area was worst hit by the swarms of thugs on 13 and 14 May (including one above).

Note: none of the pictures is graphic, but rather of silenced fear, misery, and uncertain hopes, largely reverberating on how we respond to the trepidation ourselves.


Minorities at Risk, a specialized research project from University of Maryland aimed at monitoring 283 of the planet’s most vulnerable ethnic minorities, releases a full chronology of notorious events largely related to Chinese Indonesians (other than 1998 May riots).


You may also read these articles for more ‘enlightenment’ : (an Indonesian author published a graphic novel, set in distant future, about a child, born out of wedlock during 1998 May riots, who retells her horrifying background after reaching the age of 40.)




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