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Jewish World Review / May 22, 1998 / 26 Iyar, 5758

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell The lessons of Indonesia

TRAGIC AS THE LETHAL rioting in Indonesia has been, what is an additional tragedy for Americans is how few of us seem to have understood what went wrong there -- and what could go wrong here.

While the media depict the riots as being directed against Indonesia's corrupt and despotic President Suharto, the biggest victims are in fact members of the Chinese minority in that country. It is their stores that are being looted and burned, and it is they who are being assaulted and killed.

One TV journalist on the scene referred to the Indonesian rioters as "the dispossessed." Yet the very pictures his cameraman was taking showed the rioters looking far less like an enraged proletariat rising up against oppression than like happy looters toting home television sets and other goodies stolen from shopping malls.

There are many legitimate grievances against the Suharto regime and that may be what set off the riots in the first place. But that is no reason to romanticize the ugly envy and resentment that Indonesians have long felt against the Chinese, who have not dispossessed them of anything.

Some find it strange and sinister that the Chinese, who are just 5 percent of the population of Indonesia own an estimated 80 percent of the capital of the country. But it is neither strange nor sinister.

The Chinese did not come in and take over the commerce and industry of Indonesia. The Chinese created most of that commerce and industry. It is no more strange that most of the capital in the country belongs to the Chinese than it is that most of the feathers in the world belong to birds. That is where feathers originate.

What is strange -- and what may ultimately be sinister in its effects -- is the blind dogma that any deviation from an even distribution of income, wealth, occupations or honors is both odd and a sign of something nefarious going on. In reality, such "disparate" statistics are common around the world and have been common in centuries past.

People from India once had a similar predominance in the businesses of much of East Africa -- not because they took over these businesses but because they created them. So did the Jews in prewar Poland, the Germans in southern Brazil, the Ibos in northern Nigeria, the Italians in Buenos Aires, the Lebanese in West Africa ... and on and on.

If we want to understand why the majority populations of these various places did not have the same entrepreneurship as these minorities, then we can talk about history and culture.

But, if we are ignorant of such things, then we can at least avoid misleading everyone with romantic hogwash about "the dispossessed."

President Suharto and his family have used the power of government to create lucrative monopolies for themselves, as well as raking off graft from legitimate businesses. But it is very doubtful that the president's heavy-handed military forces are letting the masses burn and loot the Suharto enterprises.

In short, those who caused the present economic crisis in Indonesia are suffering few, if any, consequences while those who built up much of this country are scapegoats being treated as if they had torn it down. Politics has a way of turning everything upside down.

The economic crisis in Indonesia was created by the government's austerity program, which was imposed by the International Monetary Fund as a condition for giving a multibillion-dollar bailout. These IMF officials are thousands of miles away from the riots, in Washington, D.C.

The ultimate beneficiaries of the bailout are the international financiers who put big bucks into risky investments in Indonesia, secure in the knowledge that IMF bureaucrats would bail them out if things turned bad.

Why is the IMF so generous with money supplied by American and other taxpayers? Precisely because it is other people's money -- and because handing out that money allows the IMF to wield global power and impose their pet notions on governments that are desperate for the bailout.

When you see rioting in Indonesia, you are seeing your tax dollars at work.

You are also seeing what can happen when a corrupt president is above the law.

5/20/98: Smart but silent
5/18/98: Israel, Clinton and character
5/14/98: Monica Lewinsky's choices
5/11/98: Random thoughts
5/7/98: Media obstruction of justice
5/4/98: Dangerous "safety"
5/1/98: Abolish Adolescence!
4/30/98: The naked truth
4/22/98: Playing fair and square
4/19/98: Bad teachers"
4/15/98: "Clinton in Africa "
4/13/98: "Bundling and unbundling "
4/9/98: "Rising or falling Starr "
4/6/98: "Was Clinton ‘vindicated'? "
3/26/98: "Diasters -- natural and political"
3/24/98: "A pattern of behavior"
3/22/98: Innocent explanations
3/19/98: Kathleen Willey and Anita Hill
3/17/98: Search and destroy
3/12/98: Media Circus versus Justice
3/6/98: Vindication
3/3/98: Cheap Shot Time
2/26/98: The Wrong Filter
2/24/98: Trial by Media
2/20/98: Dancing Around the Realities
2/19/98: A "Do Something" War?
2/12/98: Julian Simon, combatant in a 200-year war
2/6/98: A rush to rhetoric

©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.