Published: Sep 30, 2007

The South Sulawesi city of Ujungpandang was shaken by riots lasting several days in mid-September. Whole rows of shops and other buildings in the city's commercial district were destroyed, together with hundreds of automobiles and motorcycles. Private residences were also attacked. At least six persons died, some trapped in burning buildings, while scores were injured.

Mental illness

Among the dead were a 24-year old Chinese man identified only as Benny, and Anni, a nine-year old girl whom he chopped to death with a machete as she was walking home from a prayer meeting on the fateful night of 15 September. This horrific act, by a man with a history of mental illness, instigated the worst case of rioting in the city's modern history. Benny himself, apparently, was killed by a crowd that quickly gathered after the senseless murder took place. The circumstances of his death remain unclear. Rumours spread that he had not died, but had somehow survived the beating and everything the crowd threw at him. Some locals insisted he had mastered the mystic art of invulnerability (kebal). Stories circulated within hours that the authorities were hiding him. This caused more crowds to vent their anger at the Chinese community in general, signifying once again that all is not well with race relations in many parts of Indonesia. It took several days before authorities finally convinced people that Benny was dead.

Night clubs

The murder of Anni, the only daughter of a lecturer at a local Muslim university, took place at about nine o'clock in the evening. Soon afterwards people were already gathering and descending towards the commercial district, especially onto the block where new pubs, karaokes and night clubs were prominent. These, as well as stores, shopping malls, banks, motor vehicle dealerships and some hotels, became the target of attacks for the next few days. Even a Buddhist monastery was damaged. Unlike recent outbreaks of anti-Chinese rioting in Java, churches were largely left unscathed. On the seventeenth, authorities declared the city 'under control'. Thousands of soldiers and police remained on guard for several more days, as sporadic actions of destruction and looting continued. On the nineteenth the situation became tense. Word of mouth had it that a new round of rampaging would take place following Friday afternoon prayers. This did not happen, probably helped by the understanding, again spread by word of mouth, that security forces had orders to shoot to kill. Still, the city remained full of soldiers donning anti-riot equipment, many of whom were reportedly elite troops brought in from outside Ujungpandang. The reverberations of these events were felt elsewhere. Cities and towns in East Java were put on military alert, for fear of a repeat of anti-Chinese riots that had recently torn sections of that province apart. In a development not clearly related, hundreds of villagers attacked two police stations in a district south of Ujungpandang. They were retaliating against alleged cases of police abuse and wrongful arrest. Having ransacked one police station, they then released all of its prisoners.

Why?

As usual, military authorities were quick to blame 'third parties', a euphemism for non-government organisations. Military commander Maj-Gen Agum Gumelar and Abri chief of social and political affairs Lt-Gen Yunus Yosfiah thought it impossible that the riots were an act of spontaneity. They suggested a nation-wide conspiracy aimed at disrupting stability. The National Commission on Human Rights had another theory. They held that the riots were the product of growing social and economic disparities. Ujungpandang (many residents prefer the old named steeped in history, Makassar) is a city undergoing rapid change. New shopping centres, hotels, and recreation facilities have been built, by some accounts largely by Jakarta's moneyed elite. Near Ujungpandang is a growing industrial zone, where scores of factories have been built. Industrial unrest has begun to rise, though not yet to levels now common in Java. The changing social and economic milieu is creating new problems and anxieties. Ujungpandang has become a much rougher and tougher town, something like Medan on a smaller scale. In spite of home-grown business notables like Jusuf Kalla, local indigenous entrepreneurs (pribumi) feel left behind by the new wealth being created. They blame the local Chinese, who are visibly dominant over petty commerce. (Ironically, the Makassarese and Buginese have quite a reputation as competent traders in many other parts of Indonesia). However, they should probably be directing more of their attention to Jakarta's rich and powerful, whose long reach has found Ujungpandang.

Dr Vedi Hadiz is a research fellow of the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, Perth.

Inside Indonesia 53: Jan-Mar 1998