Riots in Sulawesi

October 1, 1997

By James Balowski

At least six people have been killed, scores wounded and hundreds arrested during three days of rioting in the Indonesian provincial capital of South Sulawesi, Ujung Padang.

The riots were sparked by the killing of a nine-year-old Muslim girl on September 15 by a 23-year-old Chinese man who attacked her and a relative with a machete.

Identified by police only as "Benny", the man was set upon by a mob before he could be taken away by police. He died in hospital the next day. The following morning, more than 1000 people rampaged through the city throwing stones, looting and burning homes, shops and vehicles, mainly in ethnic Chinese areas.

By September 17, shops and schools were closed, troops were patrolling the streets and police were warning ethnic Chinese to stay home. Residents said a curfew had been imposed and that troops had fired warning shots in the air, ordering residents to stay inside.

One witness told the South China Morning Post that she had seen Chinese being dragged naked from their homes. Many residents painted Arabic words on their houses, hoping to prevent an attack.

Twenty-eight ethnic Chinese are believed to have been hospitalised, two firefighters were found dead in the rubble of a razed building, and another charred body was found in a gutted pub. A Hong Kong businessperson also died.

The official government news agency, Antara, reported that 73 of the 588 people arrested had been charged with looting or vandalism.

It also reported extensive damage to businesses and motor vehicles, and that 13 people had been wounded by "stray" bullets. Police admit that nine rioters were hospitalised after being shot by security personnel.

The Roberta and Prima Mode department stores were broken into and looted, and 50 vehicles from the Robert Motor showroom were set alight. The Radisson Hotel, Bank Bali, Bank Central Asia and Primadonna entertainment centre where also damaged.

A preliminary report by the National Human Rights Commission estimates damages worth 17.5 billion rupiah (approximately $8 million).

This is only the most recent riot in a wave of unrest over the last two years. As in previous cases, the riots were sparked by a relatively minor incidents but quickly took on an anti-Chinese or anti-Christian focus.

Increasingly, other symbols of wealth and power such as banks, government offices and police stations have also become targets for the rioters.

Although there is considerable animosity toward Indonesia's ethnic Chinese, who account for only 4% of the population, many analysts believe this is directed most against the enormous Chinese conglomerates politically linked to President Suharto and other high officials.

With the rich Chinese out of reach, however, the poorer, mainly rural ethnic Chinese bear the brunt of growing social anger at increasing social inequality, corruption and political repression.

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