In the late 1990s it seemed quite possible that Indonesia was going to disintegrate, to become a South-East Asian version of Pakistan or Nigeria. The collapse of the long-lasting dictatorship of Suharto in 1998, together with the Asian financial crisis, battered Indonesia's economy and released the cork that had kept contained religious, ethnic, class and other divisions in this very diverse archipelago. The result was political and social meltdown. The economy, already in a worse state than, say, South Korea's, shrank by 13 per cent in 1998, and tens of millions of Indonesians fell below the poverty line. Prices for staple goods like rice and cooking oil soared, and in Jakarta rioters targeted enclaves lived in by the small, often wealthy ethnic Chinese community. Mobs burned down Chinese homes, looted Chinese-owned stores and reportedly gang-raped Chinese women. From the skyscrapers of the financial district, when I visited, you could see fires burning across the city, the flames skipping from one neighbourhood to the next. My translator, a Christian Indonesian Chinese who writes Bible-inspired children's stories in her spare time, slept on the floor of her office in downtown Jakarta, too scared to go home.
LRB 3 March 2011 | PDF Download