Returning to his shop the day after riots engulfed Jakarta, Lee Wei Sung was still in a state of shock. Both his home and nearby shop were torched by angry mobs rioting in the streets of Indonesia’s capital in May, 1998. The riots destroyed more than just piles of wood and mortar though; the psychological trauma of having to live through the vicious riots will surely live longer than any financial damage done to Sung’s property. Why him? Why so many others like him in his neighborhood? For one simple answer: because he is Chinese. Like roughly 7 million other ethnic-Chinese inhabitants of Indonesia, Sung is resented for his disproportionate share of the country’s wealth. Although only forming 3.5% of Indonesia’s total population, the ethnic-Chinese account for nearly 75% of Indonesia’s assets, 9 of the top 10 business groups in the country, and 13 of the top 15 individual taxpayers. This skewed distribution of wealth among ethnic groups has caused resentment and tension for decades, if not for the entire twentieth century. With brief exceptions, this ongoing ethnic tension remained suppressed and kept below the surface - until recently, that is. The financial crisis, and the anger caused by rapid price increases in fuel and essential household items, was directed towards the small but visible ethnic-Chinese minority, whose homes were burned and businesses looted.
Sung’s ancestors came to Indonesia from Guangdong province in southern China in the 1890s, making his family an integral part of Indonesia’s multi-ethnic heritage. His family business, which sells rubber and plastic to sandal-making factories throughout Java began as a small shop in a back-alley and has since flourished. Just after noon on May 13, 1998 Sung closed his shop early due to the growing mobs of protesters and looters targetting shops in Jakarta’s Chinatown district. The following morning, rioters had grown more violent and vicious, and Sung woke up to find hundreds of Indonesian men surrounding his mostly-Chinese apartment complex. The following personal narrative paints a shocking picture of the terror that was to follow. "We got a call from our neighbors on the third floor telling us that the mobs had moved up to the second floor and that they were moving quickly up the building. I immediately gathered my wife and two daughters and took the stairs to the top [fifteenth] floor. As soon as we entered the hallway on the top floor, my youngest daughter, Joon, was grabbed by 2 men, who were joined by many others in seconds. After we were all captured, the rioters - there must have been at least 60 of them - tore off the clothes of my wife, both my daughters, and several others, and held them down as they were raped by as many as 5 men. At that point I was knocked unconscious. Hours later, I woke up to find Joon stabbed to death and my wife and other daughter lying unconscious on the floor." Over a year later, Sung still can’t believe what happened. Unlike tens of thousands of other ethnic-Chinese, Sung has refused to leave Indonesia since "it is my home and I have every right to be here - I will not be driven away by force." Whether he stays or leaves, the Asian crisis will indeed be remembered by hundreds of ethnic-Chinese for far more than abstract global financial linkages or faceless figures put out by bureaucrats.