Indonesia's Ethnic Violence Hits Home in L.A.

Indonesia 's Ethnic Violence Hits Home in Los Angeles Reaction: Chinese who fled persecution stage protests, while some businesses feel economic effects.


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 rights groups.

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 relatives.

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 psychological stress.

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 part-time.

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."