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20 Years of Reformasi

We Asked People Who Fled After the '98 Riots How They Feel About Indonesia Today

What's the country look like to them after all these years abroad?
Photo illustration by Dini Lestari

I was sitting in my Chinese language class in Shanghai when my teacher suddenly told me that I looked "different." It was a confusing statement. I had moved to China in 2014 to study Mandarin Chinese and, at the time, I wasn't even the only Indonesian in my class. So did she mean that I looked different from the other Indonesian students? Different from everyone else?

"Different how, laoshi," I asked, trying to figure out what she meant.


"You just don't look Chinese," she said.

You get used to these kinds of questions as a foreigner living in mainland China. One time, a Chinese kid looked me up and down and asked me how I could be both Asian and black—because of my brown skin and Indonesian features. Others asked me about anti-Chinese racism in Indonesia. A lot of people had heard about the riots of May 1998, and some about the drama surrounding Jakarta's former Chinese-Indonesian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a man better known as Ahok who is currently behind bars for committing blasphemy against Islam.

But it was all those questions about the riots that left me thinking. How could I ever answer them without causing even more divisions? Since I moved to China, I've made friends with a lot of Chinese-Indonesians, but even then, I never asked them about the events of May `98. So now, 20 years since the riots, I decided to actually ask my friends to share there stories. Here's what they told me:

Maya Huang*, 32

Maya was only 11 years old when she started to see the signs reading "milik pribumi" or "owned by native Indonesians," around her city. Her father quickly told her to pack a bag and get in the family's pickup truck. She spent days hiding at her domestic helper's home until the chaos subsided. She now lives in Hangzhou, a city in mainland China, with her husband an American citizen, and their one-year-old daughter. Maya told me that she would never move back to Indonesia, out of fear that riots like this in May of `98 could happen again.

Riots. Looting. Killings. Rape. These are the words that come into my head whenever some asks me about May 1998. Chinese people here sometimes ask me about what happened —specifically about how many “华人” (huá rén, or "overseas Chinese") were targeted during the riots.


I was only a 6th grader at the time, so I didn’t understand what was really happening. However, I remember the streets were quiet around my neighborhood. People closed their shops. Something wasn't right.

Looking back, I guess our family was quite lucky because my father knew someone in the military—so I guess he asked for help from that guy. Still, my father decided that running away from our house was the best option at the time.

We stayed at our maid’s house in a village near Bekasi, West Java for a couple of days. I was so confused: why did we have to leave our own home?

Some of my friends weren't so lucky. One friend told me how the mobs burned her family’s house to the ground after looting all of their belongings. Her family survived by climbing the wall outside their house.

Now that I’m older, I realize how devastating the situation really was. Why did the May 1998 riots happen in the first place? At the same time, I am disgusted. I think what the perpetrators did was disgusting.

I live in Hangzhou now and, frankly, I really don't want to return to Indonesia. The pride that I once had for my country is now fading. I am very disappointed by the government because most people in the government only work for themselves.

I think it is not impossible for something like the May 1998 riots to happen again. I think some Indonesians are still easily provoked and pulled into conflicts, especially when it comes to racial and religious issues.


Jemuel Suryanto, 44

Jemuel was a pro-democracy activist who worked to pressure Suharto to step down from power But he soon realized that Chinese-Indonesians were being marginalized in post-Suharto Indonesia as well, so he went abroad. He currently lives in Shanghai with his wife, an Australian citizen he married in 1999. I asked him what Indonesian nationalism means to him and how he feels today about his home country.

I was actually quite happy when Gus Dur was elected. I even started an English-language training center in my hometown of Surabaya. However, when Gus Dur was removed from the presidency in 2001, I was quite disappointed about the situation.

Around the same time, a friend of mine offered me an opportunity to go to the United States. I handed my business to my brother and called a calo (an illegal middleman of shorts) to take care of the papers.

After agreeing on the price, he came to my house and, realizing that I am Chinese-Indonesian, he told me that he would need to charge more. And then he saw my wife, who was a foreigner, and decided to charge us even more.

I spent several years in the US before deciding to move Shanghai. Do I want to return to Indonesia? Yes, 100 percent. But will I return to Indonesia? I’m still not sure. Of course, I love my country—at the end of the day, I will never be Chinese. Frankly, I’m more culturally shocked here than when I was still in the US.


However, as I grow older, I prefer a comfortable, safe, and peaceful life—so if Indonesia becomes stable in the future, it will be an ideal place for me.

Okky Hidayat, 31

Okky moved to Shanghai in 2009 in order to have a "better life," and he stayed. He eventually married a local Chinese woman and has a one-year-old daughter as well. While he won't ever revoke his Indonesian citizenship, he would like his daughter to grow up Chinese instead of Indonesian.

I went to Amsterdam for an internship in 2008 before I moved here. I am from Semarang, Central Java, so I didn't really experience what happened during May 1998. Furthermore, when you are abroad, it doesn't not matter whether you are Chinese-Indonesian or Muslim. We're all Indonesians out here—but what about when we're are back home?

When I was younger, I attended public schools where there were only around five other Chinese-Indonesians as my classmates. I also joined the national flag-hoisting team (Paskibraka). So I guess, my nationalism was quite high at the time

I always read the news regarding the Indonesian political issues that are happening nowadays. If you asked me about my nationalism right now—it’s like 50/50. On one hand, I am proud to be an Indonesian but, on the other hand, I am also ashamed. I was quite outraged with what happened to Ahok, for example.

I can say that, for me, that I don’t want to go back to Indonesia. And I think my daughter will be better-off with Chinese citizenship so she won't need to deal with the racism and stuff.


Personally, I can't apply for a Chinese citizenship since both of my parents were born in Indonesia. This means I can only apply for permanent residency since my wife is a local. That being said, my daughter is eligible for a Chinese citizenship. For now, I would prefer my daughter not to be Indonesian.

Gisela Herlinsen, 24

Gisela is one of the few people I spoke to who moved abroad for university and then was asked to move back home to Indonesia by her family. But she didn't want to and remained in China instead. She is even considering changing her citizenship now if she can find a way. Gisela was only four years old during the riots, but she remembers how her family, and her neighbors, were saved by a local neighborhood chief (RT) who was brave enough to stand up to the mobs.

"There are no Chinese-Indonesians in this neighborhood"—I think those were the words of my Pak RT. It was the 14th of May, 1998. My parents would later tell me horrible stories about the riots—how people were killed at the time. We were lucky that the local leaders were there to save us from harm. If he didn’t say something, I don’t know what would’ve happened.

So yes, my family—and my neighbors—were saved from the 1998 riots but that doesn't mean the harassment stopped.

For example, I was only six when my dogs were killed by some boys in the neighborhood. They stabbed my dogs and dumped them into a pond near my house. They said that dogs are "haram." The incident might sound trivial to some people but it really ruined my childhood and, subsequently, influenced my perspective toward Indonesia.

As a Chinese-Indonesian—especially as a Chinese-Indonesian woman—I do not think it is safe for me to live there. Even walking around everywhere or taking public transportation, I do not feel safe, even today.

* This name was changed by the request of the interviewee because she wasn't comfortable talking about such a sensitive topic with her real first name.