A Foreign Past: How post-1998 generation views May riots

Essay by Jesslyn Tania

Sheltered, bounded, and estranged. 

Those are the three words I would use to describe my living experience as a Chinese-Indonesian born after 1998, the year Indonesia started to transition from an authoritarian rule into a democracy–albeit imperfectly.

Being sheltered from the wider Indonesian society, bound in the name of my “protection”, and estranged from the truth behind my ethnic history and identity. The May 1998 riots couldn’t be more foreign to me.

I’ve been hearing people telling such stories in secrecy all these years–from tales of the Indonesian people’s misguided destruction to subtle unspoken warnings that we should neither ever talk about the bloody past nor take any action with regards to the incident.

Years of indoctrination planted in the minds of Chinese-Indonesian youths, then followed by our ignorance to find out more of that chapter of Indonesia’s history.

“Well, it happened anyway.” Some people–including you–might say there’s nothing else we can do and we should just move on. It is exactly the legacy of the traumatic history that we ethnic Chinese are now left with.

Even as I’m writing this down, I cannot detach myself from the uncomfortableness and pain of reminiscing and recalling this tragic event that I was not even a part of. This proves to me that the riots didn’t just ruin the livelihoods of many Chinese-Indonesian families, but instead runs deeper to the mentality of today’s Chinese-Indonesian youths.

When I asked people who were also born after 1998, the responses were overwhelmingly similar. Yes, we acknowledged that the event happened. Yes, we acknowledged we experienced loss, and yes, we, or rather our families, experienced either financial or social struggles after the riots. However, when asked how we actually define this event, we have no real answer as we were not there and did not experience the incident in person. How could we ever begin to relate in the first place?

“Well, in my experience, the ‘98 riots is irrelevant to me because I didn’t understand the situation, even though I’ve heard about how bad it was. I don’t mean to be ignorant,” said one of my friends about the subject. 

Another person I talked to said: “Honestly, I don’t feel the trauma. That’s why I lack the capacity to understand the discrimination.”

And so, a generation that forgets and doesn’t care about the riots was born. A generation that doesn’t realize its historical and cultural significance. This, of course, is not our fault. But it is, at least for me, becoming our responsibility to remember and care. We owe it to our people and ourselves that much, for this is our culture, our history. If not us, then who will do so?

Before diving into the reasons on why I think we should care about this tragic event, I try to understand why this issue never came up in the first place, resulting in such apathy on today’s Chinese-Indonesian youth. Apart from the usual “never speak of this” rule that has become some sort of a trend on Chinese-Indonesian culture that plays a big part in shaping our mindset, personality, and lack of understanding of our culture, another prominent factor that I realized plays a role is our own negligence in not taking part of knowing more of our own identity. 

To start, let’s break down on why it is important for us to remember.

Ethically speaking, we as humans should never forget our history. It is a part of our existence and nature. ”Knowledge of the past is essential to society. Without knowledge of the past we would be without identity, we would be lost in an endless sea of time,” as to quote the fundamentals of history by Arthur Marwick.

Politically speaking, it becomes an urgency for us all to acknowledge and understand that what is personal is in fact political. When we decide to make ourselves as worthy of our rights, we start to see ourselves in a more profound manner. We start to realize the discrepancies and layers that exist in our society and understand that society is inherently corrupt anyway. 

So, with the case of our history, it becomes crucial for us to realize as it helps us see the discrimination and manipulation that we Chinese-Indonesians face in the present day. By remembering and understanding such tragic events, we could help prevent any potential problems that could spark towards us and in turn, navigate our place and actions in a society that celebrates equality and justice.

“Why is it important for us to care?” you may ask. But the real question is: how can we not care? Even in a slightest bit, we do. But, our response should be determined by what we do with it. We should not forget the losses and the victims of the May riots. They were real people with lives that were abused and got taken away for just being part of “a wrong ethnicity.” When we decide to not care, we implicitly agree and accept the acts of discrimination and racism that is being pointed to us, making us willing participants in this racist and fraudulent system that has been and still is being discriminatory to us.

Though born out of conflicts and discrimination, our generation in my opinion received what could be the most substantial and profound way of living as Chinese-Indonesians so far. Most of us grew up with the ever-elusive privilege, such as choices and a more “welcoming” environment than of our predecessors. This made me become more appreciative of our parents and elders, though yes, it does not mean they are not totally innocent. But the actions that they took are what’s keeping us relevant and alive here in Indonesia today.

What’s next? It’s up to us to decide.

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