“It Was A Political Issue”: Recalling the 1998 Medan Riots

Apek Cafe in Medan has been in business for 80 years. It’s now run by Suyenti, who inherited it from her father. Suyenti, who declined to share her last name, is Chinese-Indonesian, and Apek Cafe hasn’t changed much since her father first opened its doors after moving to North Sumatra from China.

The small front room is filled with several large communal tables made of wood; Suyenti is loathe to change them to anything more modern as they add to the atmosphere. “Because of the way the tables are set up, everyone has to share,” she says. “Customers talk to the people on the same table as them and everyone is friendly. This is a multicultural area.”

The city of Medan in North Sumatra is known as one of the most multicultural places in Indonesia. Around 60% of the population are Muslim while about 29% are Christian, with smaller Buddhist and Hindu communities, mostly made up of Chinese and Tamil-Indonesians.

But despite this relative ethnic diversity, Medan was also ground zero of the 1998 riots which targeted Chinese-Indonesian businesses, spreading across Indonesia and leaving over a thousand people dead. 20 years on, media coverage on the violence against Chinese-Indonesians tend to forget this fact, and that it was originally never about race, ethnicity, or religion. But this understanding is crucial at a time where there are concerns ethnic tensions might be on the rise once more in Indonesia.

Where it began

Medan, with its reputation as a hotbed of student activism, saw months-long student protests against the Suharto government in 1998. Most of these demonstrations were tied to rising prices across Indonesia, particularly the costs of gasoline and electricity. On May 4, 1998, the police moved in on the Institut Keguruan dan Ilmu Pendidikan Negeri (IKIP Negeri) to clear the student protesters. The resulting stand-off led to allegations that the police attacked and assaulted students, and over 50 people were said to be detained. The next day, the police station where those arrested had been taken was surrounded and attacked.

The violence escalated as students and civilians turned out onto the streets of Medan, ransacking buildings, setting them on fire and smashing cars. Angry mobs attacked Chinese owned businesses, scrawling “milik pribumi” meaning “property of indigenous Indonesians” on the walls. It’s unclear how many fatalities there were, but some estimates put it at six, with hundreds injured. The violence then spread from Medan to Jakarta, and then to Solo. Estimates say over a thousand people died in these riots, with over 160 cases of rape reported. Thousands of Chinese-Indonesians fled the country.

Apek Cafe is known for is multicultural clientele. Credit: Aidli Rizki Nasution

Suyenti was lucky; both her coffee shop and neighbourhood weren’t attacked. The shop was closed for several days, but reopened a few days later. “I had no problems in 1998,” she says. “Everyone I knew in the neighbourhood was very kind to me.”

Osma Halim had a different experience. He’s 68 years old and retired now, but was a sauce salesman in 1998, selling wholesale bottled sauces to local shops and restaurants. He’s the only person New Naratif approached for an interview who would talk about the 1998 riots and the violence in detail. The majority of those asked didn’t want to discuss that dark period in Medan’s history, saying they would prefer not to dwell on the past.

He recalls mobs of hooligans coming to the area around Jalan Asia, a district known for its large Chinese-Indonesian community, armed with sticks and rocks. When he heard about an impending attack, he went straight home and locked himself in. For the next month, he survived on instant noodles and didn’t venture outside in the day. In the following weeks, he only left home when it was dark to guard the area with other local residents. They worked in shifts so there would always be a line of people guarding the perimeter of Jalan Asia.

The area was attacked several times between May 5 and May 8. Halim says he and other Chinese-Indonesian residents gathered piles of rocks and threw them at the attacking mob to defend the neighbourhood. He estimates that about 1,000 people tried to attack the area and storm the shops and businesses.

“They threw rocks at us, always aiming for our heads. One of my friends had his eye knocked out,” he says, shaking his head. “We had nothing to defend ourselves with. At night I saw all the shops had been looted and smashed. They took everything. Nothing was safe.”

Politics over race

“I always thought that it was a political issue, rather than a racial one,” Suyenti says of the violence.

…local hooligans had been deployed to transform a political issue into an ethnic one, and thus shift the spotlight away from the government

This distinction between politics and race is important to a narrative that has been muddled over the years. The student protests and subsequent riots are now almost always referred to as the “race riots” or “anti-Chinese riots” of 1998, but that was not how things began, nor was anti-Chinese sentiment the original focus of the student protesters. The protests made no mention of specific ethnic groups and had focused on the Suharto regime, which many saw as corrupt. Many however considered the targeting of the Chinese-Indonesian community in 1998 a throwback to 1965 and the anti-Communist purges in Indonesia that left an estimated 500,000 to a million dead, including many ethnic Chinese.

In the paper ‘Explaining Anti-Chinese Riots In Late 20th Century Indonesia’, Samsu Rizal Panggabean and Benjamin Smith explain that the anti-Chinese violence was a result of attempts to deflect attention away from the incompetence of the security forces:

It was not inevitable that violence would take an ethnic and anti-Chinese turn until the crucial uncontrollable events of May 5 […] The inability of either police or army units to manage the events set the stage for their deployment of pre-man [local gangsters] to shift the frame of rioting from anti-regime to anti-Chinese.

Put simply, local hooligans had been deployed to transform a political issue into an ethnic one, and thus shift the spotlight away from the government—the original target of the demonstrations. Rather than a case of deep-seated racial tensions bubbling to the surface, the targeting of Chinese-Indonesians in 1998 was a cynical political move and carried out largely by organised hooligans and opportunistic youths. The violence, or lack thereof, could depend on the whims of the local gangsters; Chinese-Indonesians stayed safe in some neighbourhoods because the local preman refused to allow anyone to loot in their area or touch the Chinese businesses. As one Chinese-Indonesian resident of Kampung Madras in the centre of Medan, who didn’t want to be named, told New Naratif: “[Their leader] wouldn’t let the hooligans come down here. He protected us.”

Andy, a Batak-Muslim who asked that his real name not be revealed, was one of the youths who participated in the looting. He was 13 years old in 1998 and remembers some small-scale robbery in his neighbourhood.

“I went out with my friends to see what was happening,” he says. “Many of the shop windows had already been shattered. Everyone was running into the shops so I ducked into a shoe store and grabbed all the shoes I could find.”

After he got home, he realised that he’d snatched all the display models and only had the right foot of each pair of shoes. When his mother learned what he’d done, she beat him and made him take them all back to the shop.

“I was just a kid, of course, I had no understanding of the political or racial situation,” he says. “I just wanted some free shoes.”

Tensions today

This context serves as a vital prism through which to look at the reactions of Chinese-Indonesians in Medan at a time when ethnic and religious tensions are noted to be on the rise in Indonesia. This is particularly true following the bruising gubernatorial elections in Jakarta in 2017, in which race and religion were said to have played a big part in Anies Baswedan, a Muslim candidate, sweeping to victory, over the then-Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama.

The protests, although largely peaceful, sparked fears across Indonesia that riots targeting Chinese-Indonesians could happen again.

Ahok—a Christian Chinese-Indonesian who inherited the position of governor after his running mate Joko Widodo was elected president in 2014—was jailed for two years in May this year on blasphemy charges after he was found guilty of insulting Islam by quoting a verse from the Qu’ran in a speech. The charge was widely considered as part of a political power-play in order to prevent Ahok election’s as governor of Jakarta. In the lead up to his sentencing, thousands of Indonesians, organised by conservative Muslim groups, took to the streets in protest, calling for Ahok to be punished. The protests, although largely peaceful, sparked fears across Indonesia that riots targeting Chinese-Indonesians could happen again. Baswedan, in particular, was seen as deliberately courting Muslim voters in order to secure victory, and was accused of using race as a tool to cause divisions between the different ethnic communities in Jakarta.

Osma recalls the violence in Medan in detail. Credit: Aidli Rizki Nasution

Halim refuses to comment on the possible ripple effects of the Ahok trial, worried that any words of support for the former governor could be taken out of context, but shakes his head at the suggestion that it might reignite racial tensions in Medan; he feels safe now and says he isn’t worried.

“We were never united, but we’ve always co-existed just fine,” he says.

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