Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Shadow of 1998 hangs over Jakarta’s Chinatown on poll day

Jakarta: Chinese-Indonesians are the most patient people on Earth, says Aina, a 51-year-old housewife from Jakarta’s Chinatown district: “That’s why God loves us”.

She is shopping for garlic at a sparse market that smells strongly of chicken and assorted animal droppings. But she enthusiastically breaks to guide us to her cousin, a stallholder who she says will recount what he witnessed here in May 1998 during deadly anti-Chinese riots long associated, possibly unfairly, with Indonesia’s likely next president, Prabowo Subianto.

Iwan, who was 27 in 1998, remembers crowds armed with sticks breaking shop windows in Jakarta’s Chinatown.

Iwan, who was 27 in 1998, remembers crowds armed with sticks breaking shop windows in Jakarta’s Chinatown.Credit: Zach Hope

Polls show Prabowo, a former general who has coveted the leadership for decades, leads his rivals Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan by more than 20 points to win Wednesday’s national elections – the first for a decade that does not involve incumbent Joko Widodo. If he scores a majority of 50 per cent plus one vote, he will avoid a run-off in June.

The chat at the stall does not go well. The surly cousin suspects our presence to be a Western plot, though does not elaborate. Besides, he growls, what difference would it make who won the election? No one will ever be held accountable.

Few in Chinatown want to talk about sensitive matters of politics and long-simmering racism. But Aina, who asked to go by one name and is one of several million Indonesians of Chinese ancestry, is not afraid to let rip.

“Many of my Chinese friends want to vote for [Prabowo],” she says. “I told my best friend, ‘you are out of your mind. Don’t you remember what happened?’ I asked, ‘what is your reason for choosing him?’ They said: ‘Because we feel pity for him – he has already lost two times’.”

“Oh my God! Oh, my friends!” she says, switching to English and throwing her head back in anguish. “But it’s democracy, so I cannot get mad at them.”

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, right, and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, Joko Widodo’s son, at a rally in Jakarta on Saturday.

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, right, and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, Joko Widodo’s son, at a rally in Jakarta on Saturday.Credit: Ahmad

It is believed more than 1000 people died in the 1998 riots across several cities, and more than 100 women were raped. Details of the events, which disproportionately affected Chinese Indonesians, are complex and murky, particularly as to the agent provocateurs and their motives.

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