Indonesia 's Ethnic Violence Hits Home in Los Angeles Reaction: Chinese who fled
persecution stage protests, while some businesses feel economic effects.
by EVELYN IRITANI
Los Angeles Times
Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles in 1977, David Tan legally reclaimed the Chinese
surname his family had been forced to give up a decade earlier when the Indonesian
government banned the use of Chinese names, language or characters.
He spent the next two decades quietly carving out a new life for himself, his wife and
three children, settling in the eastern San Gabriel Valley community of Walnut. He avoided
thinking about the ethnic hatred--job discrimination, extortion attempts, police
harassment--that had eventually forced his family to leave Indonesia , their adopted home
for eight generations.
But the soft-spoken Indonesian Chinese immigrant broke his silence after
anti-government demonstrations in Jakarta in May turned into an orgy of burning, looting
and violence aimed at the ethnic Chinese, whose business acumen has made them a favorite
scapegoat during times of economic distress.
His sister-in-law's home and small photo processing shop were looted and destroyed in
the three nights of horror that claimed more than 5,000 buildings, shops and homes and at
least 1,200 lives. More than 150 rapes also occurred during the melee, according to human
Here in the United States, the disturbing stories filtering out of Indonesia have
jolted the normally publicity-shy immigrant community into action. The majority of the
estimated 10,000 Indonesians living in Southern California are ethnic Chinese, many of
whom came to this country to escape the persecution back home.
"We dislike being treated like second-class citizens," said Tan, a
53-year-old electronics technician who has joined a newly formed group called the
Committee for Human Rights in Indonesia .
Events Move Ethnic Chinese to Activism
Pius Chan, the Pasadena businessman who founded the committee, said most of the 400
members had never before signed a protest letter or walked a picket line. But he said
May's violent rampage--with its echoes of the infamous 1938 Nazi attack on the Jews known
as Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass)--was the proverbial last straw for ethnic
Chinese all over the world. Even the governments of China and Singapore have added their
voices to those of the aggrieved.
"When you rape somebody, that's stealing the last possession you have," said
Chan, who immigrated to the United States in 1976.
More than 1,000 Indonesians and their supporters from other ethnic Chinese communities
staged a peaceful protest last month in front of the Indonesian Consulate in Los Angeles.
In the weeks that have followed, the Committee for Human Rights in Indonesia and a
coalition of ethnic Chinese organizations in Los Angeles have collected 70,000 signatures
on a petition that they plan to send to President Clinton and members of Congress. They
want U.S. political leaders to condemn the May riots and press the Indonesian government
to do more to protect the ethnic Chinese from further violence.
Many believe that the riots were orchestrated by a renegade military faction intent on
scapegoating the ethnic Chinese and diverting criticism from President Suharto, who
resigned in disgrace just days later.
After initially downplaying the anti-Chinese violence, Suharto's successor, President
B.J. Habibie, publicly condemned the attacks as "the most inhuman event in the
history of the nation" and set up a special task force to investigate them.
But critics in the overseas Chinese community said ethnic attacks are still occurring
in remote parts of Indonesia 's 17,000 islands, and they fear the government is just
paying lip service to its pledge to address the scapegoating of their friends and
It was an earlier outbreak of anti-Chinese sentiment in the mid-1960s that prompted
Suharto to ban all visible signs of Chinese culture as a way of forcing greater
assimilation. But although the Chinese reluctantly adopted Indonesian names and got rid of
their Chinese books, they were also forced to carry identification cards that branded them
as ethnically different.
Frozen out of public universities and denied jobs in government and the military, the
Chinese focused their attention on making money, which made them an increasingly powerful,
and resented, economic force. Although they constitute just 5% of the Indonesian
population, they reportedly control as much as 70% of the country's wealth.
In recent weeks, ethnic Chinese have continued to flee Indonesia for havens in the
United States, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore, fearful that the worsening economic
uncertainty and political instability could lead to another outbreak of violence.
This outflow of talent has further crippled the giant Southeast Asian country, whose
economy has been paralyzed by the more than 80% decline in the rupiah, the Indonesian
currency, and the collapse of the stock market and banking system.
Elsewhere in the overseas Indonesian community, there are signs of financial as well as
Particularly hard-hit are Indonesian students, whose costs have dramatically increased
with the devaluation of the rupiah. Some have been forced to return home. Others hope they
will be able to earn enough money to stay on, since U.S. immigration officials have
created a special exemption to allow students from five hard-hit Asian countries to work
Those nearing the end of their college career are looking for ways to extend their
education or hoping to find work with employers willing to help them get a work visa.
Restaurants Have Fewer Customers
For Tunjung Ismoedi, a 24-year-old product design major at the Art Center College of
Design in Pasadena, that means giving up his dream of returning home after graduation and
helping an Indonesian company create products for the world market.
"There are thousands of islands back home that have never been touched by
design," he said regretfully.
The dramatic drop in Indonesians traveling abroad has been devastating for the dozen
Indonesian restaurants that have cropped up in the Los Angeles area over the past decade.
Until the financial crisis hit in July 1997, it was largely Indonesian students and
tourists who frequented Bali Place, a tiny West Los Angeles restaurant specializing in
dishes such as nasi goreng, which is Indonesian fried rice, and gulai kambing, Indonesian
lamb. But since the first of this year, business has dropped by more than 50%, according
to owners Jenny and Jimmy Tunggadjaja.
For the past few months, the Tunggadjajas' restaurant has survived by infusions of cash
from their father, who owns several Chinese medicine shops and pharmacies and is involved
in real estate in Indonesia . But with the collapse of the domestic economy, he has warned
his children that he will no longer be able to send them money.
Unless sales pick up soon, the Tunggadjajas fear, they will have to close the
restaurant and try to find jobs to pay their rent.
"There's no point in me or Jimmy going back to Indonesia right now," said
Jenny, 29, a graduate of American College in Westwood. "The only thing we can do
right now is try to survive and stay afloat in the water."
One of the cruel ironies of the global economy, however, is that one person's
misfortunes are generally another person's gain. Ben Benniardi, a Pasadena importer of
fancy ceramic tiles from Indonesia , has been able to shave his costs substantially
because the weakened rupiah dramatically lowers the cost of production.
Given the reduced costs and the boom in home sales in the United States, Benniardi, the
managing director of Mulia Inc., expects this year's sales will be at least double his
1997 sales of $30 million.
Nevertheless, Benniardi, 67, who came to this country 16 years ago after a successful
career in pharmaceuticals in Indonesia , spends a lot of time worrying about his friends
and relatives back home, including several of his children who returned to work in Jakarta
after graduating from colleges in the United States.
"They will stay as long as they can still earn a living," he said. "But
they are just more alert and ready."