Sunday, May 12, 2002

Black May 1998: 4th Commemoration (4 of 17)

'Imlek' a misnomer
The Jakarta Post (February 19, 2002)

Being a Chinese-Indonesian, I must compliment your reporter on the page one article Govt declares 'Imlek' as national holiday (The Jakarta Post, Feb. 18, 2002) and the news coverage in the same issue.

But Imlek is, in effect, a misnomer. As your editorial and reporting are more often than not transcribed by your respectable peers in Southeast Asia, I feel the need to make a correction.

Imlek is the word for lunar calender. Thus what we call Chinese New Year is in the fact the Lunar New Year. By the same token the word "Mandarin" has been misused as the Chinese national language, which, as a matter of fact, is to denote the Peking (Beijing) dialect as decreed by the Qing government to be spoken by the mandarins in the former empire.

Liem Sian Tie


Indonesia stirs ethnic Chinese pot
By Richel Langit
Asia Times (February 20, 2002)

Jakarta - Bowing to mounting public pressure for the government to give equal, non-discriminatory treatment to Indonesians of Chinese descent, President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared on Sunday that the Lunar New Year, or Imlek as the Chinese New Year is known in Indonesia, will be celebrated as an official national holiday beginning next year.

This is just one of a series of efforts by the government in recent years to phase out discriminatory policies against the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. Although Chinese Indonesians account for less than 3 percent of the country's 215 million people, they control almost 90 percent of the economy.

In 2000, then president Abdurrahman Wahid revoked a presidential decree that banned all activities related to Chinese culture and religion. The decree was issued by then president Suharto after a failed coup d'etat by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965, which Indonesia partly blamed on China.

However, despite these initiatives, discrimination against ethnic Chinese in Indonesia is likely to continue.

At the policy level, discriminatory treatment toward ethnic Chinese benefits corrupt officials and greedy security personnel, while at the social level deep-seated resentment over the perceived dominance of ethnic Chinese in the country's economy and their apparent reluctance to assimilate with Indonesians of other ethnic groups is unlikely to change overnight.

Currently, about 50 laws and ordinances are considered to be discriminatory toward Chinese-Indonesians. These, which date back as far as the Dutch colonization period, cover a variety of issues, including a ban on ethnic Chinese doing business at district and village levels.

The Megawati administration has promised to look into the laws for possible revocation, but doubt remains whether the process will run smoothly as corrupt government officials are likely to maintain the laws.

Up until now, for example, every Chinese-Indonesian is required to have a citizenship certificate proving that she or he is a legitimate Indonesian. The certificate is required when applying for official documents such as birth certificates and passports.

If the person is already a "legitimate" Indonesian, she or he has to produce evidence that they or their parents or grandparents have already obtained Indonesian citizenship. The process of obtaining a citizenship certificate itself is very complicated and costs a lot of money. Often, Chinese-Indonesians choose to bribe government officials in exchange for speedy process.

Even the country's army exploits ethnic Chinese. The Army's Coordinating Council for Ethnic Chinese Affairs (BKMC) keeps a watchful eye on the ethnic Chinese for possible political dissidence among the ethnic Chinese community. Evidence of opposition to the government is met with riot threats similar to the May 1998 mayhem, when Chinese-Indonesians were targeted in riots preceding the downfall of former dictator Suharto.

The council is officially said to have been formed immediately after the communist coup attempt in 1965 as suspicions were high that the communist ideology was being spread by the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. At that time, Suharto's government wanted to curb the number of Chinese citizens entering Indonesia and limit their movement within the country. Allegations are abounding, however, that the BKMC has been used by the military to threaten and extort money from wealthy Chinese Indonesians.

In his short tenure, former president Wahid revoked a number of discriminatory laws, including a law requiring Chinese Indonesians to have a citizenship certificate and a law banning public activities related to Chinese culture and religion.

Although Chinese dances such as barongsai and other cultural arts have been performed publicly since then, ethnic Chinese are still subject to rigorous treatment not encountered by Indonesians of other "foreign" descent, such as Arabian or Indian ethnic groups. Government officials, for example, continue to demand Chinese Indonesians to produce citizenship certificates and charge high fees when they apply for official documents, arguing that the government has not issued implementation guidelines on the new rulings.

At the social level, resentment over the perceived dominance of ethnic Chinese on the economy and their apparent reluctance to assimilate are likely to keep anti-Chinese sentiment among "indigenous" Indonesians burning.

Anti-Chinese sentiment continues to run high as Indonesia struggles to dig itself out of the multi-dimensional crisis that struck in 1997. Chinese-Indonesian business people have largely been blamed for fomenting corruption and collusion by bribing officials to win business contracts or other favors from the government. Such practices have been blamed for pushing the country's economy to bankruptcy.

The people at large have also questioned the ethnic Chinese sense of nationalism after allegations that at the height of the economic crisis in 1997-98, they chose to withdraw from Indonesia and parked their capital worth billions of US dollars - earned from doing business in Indonesia - in Singapore or Hong Kong. Such a sentiment is so prevalent among "indigenous" Indonesians that it would be difficult for them to accept that the ethnic Chinese is one of them.

"Ethnic Chinese now have to free their minds from past trauma and exercise their rights and duties as Indonesian citizens, and contribute to society in the same walk of life as indigenous Indonesians - in business, politics and as civil servants," ethnic Chinese legislator Alvin Lie said when asked about ways to eliminate discriminative treatment against the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia.

Indeed, the significance of Imlek being declared a national holiday is that it is an act of political recognition of Chinese Indonesian citizens, but any move to eliminate discriminatory laws and ordinances will be offset by the reluctance of ethnic Chinese to assimilate with "indigenous" Indonesians.

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