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Some Indonesian Chinese wary of Prabowo Subianto amid painful memories of 1998 riots

South China Morning Post - February 22, 2024

Johannes Nugroho – Prabowo Subianto's projected victory in Indonesia's recent presidential election is considered polarising among some sections of the country's ethnic Chinese minority, given the alleged involvement of senior military officers during the tragic 1998 riots including the former general.

While some Chinese-Indonesians said they had opposed Prabowo on this ground, others, especially those from younger generations, were willing to look past the country's dark history and hope that its political and economic stability would continue.

Quick count results from the February 14 election showed Prabowo winning with an estimated 58 per cent of the national vote – the final results are expected to be announced by March 20 at the latest. It was his third presidential bid after losing two bitterly fought campaigns against outgoing president Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi.

Suwondo, who wished to be identified by his first name only and is a Chinese Indonesian resident of Depok, a satellite city of Jakarta, said he voted against Prabowo in the 2014, 2019 and last week's elections.

"Back then [in 2014 and 2019], we voted for Jokowi to prevent Prabowo from winning," said Suwondo.

The 65-year-old retiree said many Chinese Indonesians suspected that the former general played a key role in the May 1998 riots, which occurred at the height of the Asian Financial Crisis and led to the resignation of the dictator Suharto, who was Prabowo's father-in-law at the time.

After his re-election in 2019, Widodo surprised many by inviting his former rival to join his cabinet as defence minister. Their political alliance grew stronger after Widodo's eldest son Gibran Rakabuming Raka became the former general's vice presidential running mate in October.

Many believe Widodo's enormous popularity and his tacit endorsement of Prabowo and Gibran's ticket were crucial to the pair's electoral victory.

"So it's a great irony that Prabowo is going to be president, thanks to the man we elected to prevent him from becoming one in the first place," said Suwondo.

Chinese Indonesians make up somewhere between three and five per cent of Indonesia's population of 278 million. No data has been released breaking down the voter demographics of the February 14 election. According to an exit poll conducted by the newspaper Kompas, there was a significant variance in voting preferences among different generations, with more younger voters picking Prabowo by proportion.

During the 1998 riots, thousands of Chinese-owned homes and businesses were attacked, looted and set ablaze across the country, notably in major cities like Jakarta, Solo and Medan.

"The most traumatic part was the rape of our women during the racially motivated attacks," Suwondo said.

In the aftermath of the riots, a report was released by a government-mandated fact-finding commission.

The Joint Fact Finding Team (TGPF), which comprised senior figures from the government, the military and others, said victims of the riots had suffered from "material loss ... death at the time of the riot [burned, shot, assaulted, etc], loss of job, assault, kidnapping, and ... the targets of sexual assault acts."

TGPF identified "85 sexual assaulted victims" including "52 raped victims" based on witness accounts and investigations. "Although not all of the sexual violence victims were ethnic Chinese, most of the sexual violence victims were indeed ethnic Chinese females."

Witnesses spoke of "mobs spurred on to riots by military-looking men" but no proof has been unearthed by the TGPF on the individuals who engineered the riots.

According to the final report by TGPF issued on October 23, 1998, the riots across the country resulted in 1,300 deaths, with Jakarta suffering the worst death toll at 1,190. The latter figure differed significantly from the ones submitted by Indonesian authorities. The Jakarta Police reported 451 deaths in the capital while the military said there were 463 deaths in the city.

Prabowo has always maintained he was not responsible for the May 1998 riots. However, he did admit to his involvement in the kidnapping of student democracy activists that same year, which resulted in the then-general's dismissal from the military.

Prabowo had said on several occasions that he abducted the activists "on the order of his superiors" and that he was merely "carrying out orders as a soldier". The Honours Committee of the Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI) in August 1998 only mentioned Prabowo's role in the kidnapping of activists, not the riots.

While anger over the events of 1998 remains for Chinese-Indonesians like Suwonodo, memories of the tragedy are fading away, at least for younger generations in the community.

Kevin Tan, a 35-year-old entrepreneur in Surabaya who runs an export-import business in Surabaya, said he had voted for Prabowo in the recent election.

"I voted for 02 [Prabowo-Gibran's number on the ballot paper] because Jokowi's son Gibran was his vice-presidential candidate."

"I started my business back in 2017 and grew it to its current size when Jokowi was president," he said. "So I will always associate my success with Jokowi. It may sound irrational but I feel a sense of jodoh with Jokowi."

Jodoh in the Indonesian language roughly translates to destined affinity or serendipity.

Kevin said his wish was for Widodo to be allowed a third term but since that was not allowed under the country's constitution, Gibran's candidacy was "the next best thing".

Asked if he was aware of the accusation against Prabowo over his possible involvement in the 1998 riots, he said he was but that it was not enough to sway his vote.

"That's all in the past and I wasn't voting for him anyway. I feel reasonably confident Jokowi's influence will keep Prabowo on the right path."

Another Chinese-Indonesian, Handoko Wuryono, a 25-year-old resident of Semarang, said he also voted for Prabowo-Gibran, but for slightly different reasons.

"I think 02 was the best deal because Prabowo has his party in parliament and won't be a puppet," said Handoko, who is a finance manager at a national retail chain.

During the election, Prabowo defeated former Jakarta governor and opposition candidate Anies Baswedan and former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo, who was running on the ruling party's ticket.

Handoko said he never considered voting for Anies as he was "just a smooth talker".

Suwondo, who voted for Ganjar, said Anies was also a "problematic figure" for most Chinese Indonesians of his generation. "We can't forget his role in the downfall of Ahok back in 2017," he said, referring to former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama by his popular nickname.

Ahok, a Chinese-Indonesian Christian, was running against Anies in the 2017 gubernatorial election when he made a public comment about a verse in the Koran.

His comment angered hundreds of thousands of Muslims, who accused him of blasphemy and took to the streets in Jakarta to protest.

Ahok ultimately lost the election to Anies, whom many criticised for having capitalised on "identity politics" against his opponent throughout his campaign. Charged by the prosecution for his "blasphemy against Islam", Ahok was later convicted in a trial and sentenced to two years in jail.

"Ahok represented the hope of equality for us Chinese-Indonesians and Anies was partly responsible for squashing that hope," Suwondo said.

But for 29-year-old Surabaya-based Chinese-Indonesian Augusta, who wished to be identified by her first name only, Anies' action in the 2017 election was "a minor sin" compared with Prabowo's past "transgressions".

"It's my mindfulness of history that compelled me to choose Anies over the others," she said, adding she had found Anies' manifesto to be the "soundest vision" for Indonesia.

Augusta, who is a tattoo artist, also said she was "appalled" when she learned many of her friends who are Chinese-Indonesians had voted for Prabowo.

"I hope I'm wrong, but I see him as the harbinger of our regression into the old autocratic days of [President] Suharto, who was his father-in-law once."Is Israel hampering Indonesia's efforts to join the OECD?

Augusta said she had always admired Widodo's achievements as president but the political manoeuvres he used to pave the way for his son's candidacy were a concern.

"It was obvious Gibran couldn't have circumvented the law on the minimum age for VP candidates if Jokowi hadn't done some tinkering so his candidacy was morally if not legally flawed," she said.

Gibran, the 37-year-old mayor of Solo, did not meet the minimum age of 40 constitutionally required of presidential or vice-presidential candidates. But an October ruling by the Constitutional Court, chaired at the time by Widodo's brother-in-law, created an exception to the rule for those who had already been elected to office. The verdict led to accusations of nepotism and abuse against Widodo.

During their election campaigns, the three rival teams had attempted to woo Chinese-Indonesian voters with their outreach efforts.

Muhaimin Iskandar, Anies' running mate and chairman of the Islam-based National Awakening Party, held an event celebrating the Lunar New Year in Jakarta in early February. Ganjar's team sent the presidential candidate's son, Alam Ganjar, to attend an event for the Chinese-Indonesian community in Surabaya. Gibran also attended several events related to Lunar New Year celebrations.

Some Chinese-Indonesians, like 27-year-old Jakarta resident Tommy Gunawan, chose not to vote in this election.

"Numerically, we are probably the smallest minority group in the country. I don't think we matter that much," said the owner of a hobby shop.

He argued that Chinese-Indonesians are usually treated as an "afterthought, except every five years" during an election season.

"I had better things to do than go to the voting station. I still have to pay my bills regardless of who becomes our president."

Source: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3252754/some-indonesian-chinese-wary-prabowo-subianto-amid-painful-memories-1998-riot