The day a town was torched

A rash of anti-Chinese riots erupted in the wake of Indonesia’s economic crisis. DERWIN PEREIRA, who visited the West Java town of Pamanukan recently, reports on what happens to a community torn by violence.

FRIDAY the 13th will remain forever etched in Mohammad Rachib’s mind.

He was there that day last month when race riots tore apart Pamanukan, his quiet West Java hometown.

Mr Rachib, a 40-year-old who makes his living offering pillion rides on his motorcycle, remembers it was scorching hot as he stood in the crowded town centre at mid-day, hoping for passengers. Business had been quieter than usual because of the economic crisis.

“Then the trucks rolled in and it was mayhem after that,” he said.

Five vehicles, each carrying more than 100 people, moved slowly to a stop at the junction intersecting the town’s shopping arcade.

He did not know who they were but “they shattered our peace with their violence.”

The group of about 600 stood at the intersection chanting and singing. The crowd thickened and they were soon joined by 400 others, mostly student activists and disgruntled taxi drivers from Pamanukan.

There was silence for a moment, and then in unison, the group shouted: “We are ready!” The madness began.

Mr Rachib fell over his beat-up Honda motorcycle, as the mob went into a frenzy, attacking every store that was Chinese-owned.

He got up and sought refuge in the nearby wet market where he and his friends followed the vicious rioting for the next seven hours.

The mob branched out in different directions, with the largest group wreaking havoc along Pondok Bali, a road lined with Chinese stores selling jewellery and clothes.

They hurled stones at the shops and burnt down some of them with cooking oil and kerosene.

“Insane Chinese” and “Chinese get out” were painted on a number of buildings which had been emptied of its contents.

Local shopkeepers in turn daubed their doors and walls with “I love Islam” and “I am Muslim” to protect themselves from the violence.

The rioters also attacked churches serving the mainly Christian ethnic-Chinese community. Pews were overturned and statues smashed.

Terrified Chinese residents sought refuge in the town’s police station after fleeing their gutted homes and shops.

A month after the riots, some of the shops remain shuttered.

Housewife Linda Jusuf, 31, who has lived in the coastal town of some 50,000 people all her life, said: “We have never seen anything like this before.

“The pribumis have always been unhappy about us Chinese controlling the economy but their resentment was never open. We have become the scapegoats now because of the crisis.”

When she heard about the riots, she locked herself inside her home with her nine-year-old son and prayed.

She said: “It is very difficult for things to return to normal now. I find it hard to trust the pribumis again.”

Her husband, businessman Jusuf Ali Sugito, 36, who owns a jewellery store, said that the financial crisis had caused a rift in his relations with pribumis weeks before the riots.

“They look at us very strangely now,” he said. “Some of the people we worked with before are now keeping a distance from us.”

Mr Jusuf moved to Pamanukan in 1989 to be with his wife and also to tap business opportunities in the area.

He said that his shop was lucky to escape damage during the riots, but he has abandoned plans to open a second store.

Even though he and his wife are having second thoughts about staying on, Mr Jusuf said:

“We are proud to be Indonesians. I love this country. Our family roots are here and we don’t have any links elsewhere. We don’t speak any other language except Bahasa Indonesia and Sundanese.”

Compared to the Jusufs, other ethnic Chinese stallowners were not so lucky.

A 40-year-old furniture store owner said that the rioters destroyed nearly 90 per cent of shops and homes owned by the Chinese, his included.

“This is the land where I grew up. All it took was just one event to feel displaced,” said the man, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution.

Several of his friends left for Jakarta and Bandung after the riots.

Some Chinese, ironically, moved to areas in Pamanukan dominated by middle and lower-class pribumis to avoid being obvious targets in a minority enclave.

Said one Chinese businessman: “I feel safer living with them. The Chinese community would be an easy target for rioters.”

Some of the ethnic-Chinese interviewed felt that it was unfair to blame the pribumis in Pamanukan for the mob violence.

Mrs Tati Hermati, who lost Rp350 million (S$82,600) when her furniture shop and two cars were razed, stressed that the riots were triggered by “external elements”.

“I have a lot of pribumi friends and I don’t think they will do anything to hurt me or my family,” she said.

“They treat us normally and I trust them. This is the work of people outside this town.”

Many of the Chinese, however, feel that a gulf remains between the two communities despite living in the same town for many years.

Indeed, pribumi resentment is nothing new and dates back nearly to the arrival of the Chinese 300 years ago. It explains the periodic violence against the minority race when anti-Chinese fires are stoked.

Said the furniture shop owner: “We try to get close to them but they are not giving us a chance. They are just too jealous.”

The Pamanukan pribumis argue that the Chinese have done little to integrate into society.

One 60-year-old pribumi businessman, who declined to be named, said that the Chinese did not seem to believe in “gotong royong” which the majority race hold to very closely.

He cited the case of villagers trying to raise funds for a new drainage system. “They have so much money but volunteered so little for this project. Can you blame us for being upset with them?”

Religious scholar, Haji Haznam, 43, insisted that racial enmity was not a serious problem.

He added that it was wrong to stigmatise wealthy Chinese Indonesians in town: “If they are rich, it is because they worked for it … That should provide enough inspiration for us to also work hard.”

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