12/05/2016 Washington, D.C.
(International Christian Concern
) – Last Friday, as an estimated 200,000 conservative Muslims gathered for another round of protests against Jakarta’s first Chinese-Christian governor, the story of the 1998 tragedy has never been more relevant.
On May 12, 1998, 10,000 students gathered to march on the Parliament building of Indonesia, intent on protesting growing economic and political problems facing their country. They were blocked by the military and, following the ensuing clash between students and military forces, four students lay dead. Violence broke out almost immediately throughout Jakarta, lasting for three days.
The violence spread to Java, Sulawesi, and Maluku, where the clashes took a notably religious tone and lasted for years. At the end of the riots, it was impossible to know how many had been killed, raped, or injured and how much had been destroyed. An official investigation was never launched.
According to the Jakarta Post, an unofficial investigation in 2002 found that the riots had taken “thirteen markets, 2,479 shop-houses, 40 malls, 1,604 shops, 45 garages, 383 private offices, nine filling stations, eight public buses and minivans, 1,119 cars, 821 motorcycles, and 1,026 houses were destroyed during the riots. The violence claimed 2,244 lives…”
Some reports estimated that there were 168 cases of rape, but these numbers were only for Jakarta.
The looting and violence targeted the Chinese ethnic minority. Chinese Indonesians, many of whom were successful business people, were blamed for rising unemployment and food shortages. Many Chinese Indonesians are also Christians, making them a minority on two fronts.
The 1998 tragedy was not an unpredictable outbreak of violence, but rather the result of months of mounting pressure and hatred toward minorities. During the February before the riots, Human Rights Watch
noted, “Not only have [government officials] expressed no sympathy for the victims or made any effort to explain to the public the causes and consequences of the economic crisis, but in some cases, they have tried to deflect blame for the economic crisis onto prominent members of the ethnic Chinese community.”
That tension has far from subsided. Today, Chinese-Christian Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known as Ahok) is already facing an investigation by Indonesian police for blasphemy against the Quran due to pressure from conservative Islamic groups. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which holds strong ties to the opposing political party, maintains that the current government is anti-Muslim and should be immediately removed from office. Many Indonesians feel that the FPI is using conservative Islamic ideology to mobilize Muslims in protests that have taken on strong political and ethnic undertones.
One protester told CNN
, “It’s not about ethnicity or religion. It’s only this one person who needs to be brought to trial.”
However, Ahok is already under investigation and is awaiting trial.
Indonesia’s Muslim majority has traditionally been moderate, however the past few years have seen an increasingly vocal group of hardline Muslim radicals gaining ground. The victims in all of this conflict are the minorities, many for whom the memories of 1998 are still fresh.
A pastor of a church in Indonesia told International Christian Concern (ICC), “My fear is that moderate Muslims will keep silent and thus give more room for the radicals to grow. My fear is that at the end the government will oblige to the radicals’ demand and thus will lead Indonesia in a different direction.” In light of recent events, the pastor’s fears are justified.
Last year in Aceh, after radical Muslims burned down three Christian churches, the government stepped in and demolished seven more. Last month in Samarinda, when an ISIS-inspired terrorist threw a Molotov cocktail killing a two-year-old girl and injuring four other children, the president said little to discourage the act of violence. Last Friday in Jakarta, despite repeated calls for violence against Jakarta’s governor by hardline Muslims, the Indonesian police provided radical protesters with a stage and loudspeakers.
Many Chinese and Christians fear a repeat of the 1998 violence. A pastor of a church in Bandung told ICC, “What is happening is affecting our church members, especially the Chinese community, as they are afraid that an incident like 1998 will happen again…they feel anxious and fearful.” For many minorities, both Chinese and Christian, they are waiting as the tension builds to see if violence is sparked yet again, violence that has historically been meted out on them.