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Thursday, February 12, 1998 Published at 22:46 GMT

World: Analysis

Indonesia: Why ethnic Chinese are afraid
image: [ Protesters marching through Jakarta ]
Protesters marching through Jakarta

A series of disturbances in Indonesia, mostly involving attacks on shops owned by ethnic Chinese, has raised fears that the country's economic crisis might exacerbate long-simmering ethnic tensions. President Suharto has warned the armed forces to be prepared to take tough measures against threats to national unity. Ethnic Chinese account for only about 3% of Indonesia's population, but as the BBC's Chinese Affairs analyst, James Miles, explains, their disproportionate wealth is strongly resented by other citizens.

There are more than 50 million ethnic Chinese living in South East Asia - 10% of the region's population. But their share of the region's wealth is disproportionately large. Some two thirds of retail trade in South East Asia is controlled by ethnic Chinese, and now as the region grapples with economic ruin, long-simmering resentment of their success is erupting into racial violence.

In Indonesia, mobs in half a dozen areas of the island of Java have looted and burned shops owned by ethnic Chinese. Troops have been deployed to restore order. The rioters accused the shop owners of hiking prices but the violence was clearly motivated by more than just economic considerations.

That there was a racial element was highlighted by the attempts of non-ethnic Chinese shopowners to defend their property by putting up signs saying, "Belonging to an Indonesian". Ethnic Chinese, though born in Indonesia, are often regarded as being loyal more to their ancestral land than their native country. This perception was fuelled by China's policy until the late 1980s of regarding ethnic Chinese in South East Asia as its citizens.

The fear among ethnic Chinese in Indonesia is that the economic downturn could provoke more than just attacks on their property. Memories are strong of the near genocidal killings of the 1960s, when hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered. The violence then was nominally directed against suspected communists, but many ethnic Chinese were targeted because of their economic power.

Beijing's backing at the time for Indonesia's communist movement fuelled the ethnic violence of the 1960s. China no longer supports insurgencies in the region, but ethnic Chinese in Indonesia remain under a cloud of suspicion. In recent days, demonstrators have rallied in Jakarta to protest against two prominent ethnic Chinese businessmen who are alleged by the military to be implicated in a bomb blast. The military has accused an outlawed left-wing group of being responsible for the explosion in a Jakarta apartment.

The suspicion is reflected in long-standing official restrictions on the ethnic Chinese. They are not allowed to speak their own language and they are banned from celebrating the Chinese New Year. The government has appealed for unity and calm amid the country's economic crisis. But many ethnic Chinese fear they could become scapegoats as Indonesia's problems worsen.

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