Sunday, September 22, 2002

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

Indonesia's Battle To Be Accepted
By Dewi Anggraeni
The Far Eastern Economic Review (September 19, 2002)

It's more than four years since protesters rampaged through Jakarta's Chinatown district, burning down homes, looting businesses and claiming hundreds of lives.

For the ethnic Chinese, much has changed in the years since. They are now free to use Chinese characters in public, they can celebrate their festivals like Lunar New Year through the rituals of ancestor devotion, incense burning and dragon dances, and they are even re-entering mainstream politics: A senior state minister, Kwik Kian Gie, is now a respected member of the political elite.

"But they still have some way to go," says Fikri Jufri, political observer and former editor-in-chief of Tempo news magazine. "There are still discriminatory practices against ethnic Chinese in various spheres."

Obstacles undoubtedly remain: Lobbyists point to 62 discriminatory laws and regulations that still linger from the Suharto era. These make it harder for local Chinese to do everything, from obtaining credit from state-owned banks to securing passports and identity cards. For example, to renew a passport, a Chinese must submit proof of citizenship for any deceased parents; non-Chinese Indonesians don't. On the religious front, mixed marriages also face various bureaucratic hurdles. Meanwhile, a sweeping draft law that would bar racial and ethnic discrimination is still gathering dust in parliament.

Still, many ethnic Chinese believe that things are slowly getting better, and that their countrymen are increasingly prepared to accept them as equals. "We now feel we can contribute to rebuilding the nation," says Pikky Njoedarwo, an ethnic Chinese who runs a small business in Semarang, Central Java.

The change is the result of a number of factors, according to Harry Tjan Silalahi, head of the prestigious Centre for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in Jakarta. First, he says, there's a perception among indigenous businesspeople that they're now playing on a more level playing field after the public humiliations of ethnic-Chinese businessmen like Liem Sioe Liong and Bob Hasan -- Suharto cronies who grew rich alongside the first family.

As important, he says, was the sense of shock among indigenous Indonesians at the violence of May 1998, and in particular over the widespread reports of gang rapes of Chinese women. Deep down, Tjan Silalahi believes, many Indonesians want to make sure such incidents never happen again.

His views are echoed by Bob Widyahartono, a senior lecturer in economics at Trisakti University and himself of Chinese descent: "Since 1998 the ethnic Chinese are more included, more accepted as fellow Indonesians. There is even a feeling of solidarity across the racial barriers."

Widyahartono believes the Chinese paid a high price for survival in the Suharto era. In 1967, Suharto imposed severe restrictions on the community, which accounts for 4% of the national population, after accusing China of involvement in the allegedly communist-led coup attempt of September 1965. That left Indonesian-Chinese "at the mercy of the political elite, who turned them into money-making machines." Now, he says, members of the community are gradually returning to politics, "and generally they are well-received."

As for who created the gap between the ethnic Chinese and the indigenous population, Widyahartono believes both sides have a lot to answer for. The local population, particularly the working and lower-middle classes, tend to be unreasonably jealous of the relatively well-off Chinese, while the Chinese are too fatalistic about the discrimination they suffer.

"The indigenous tend to feel that the Chinese are the cause of their misery, so they dislike them and keep away from them," Widyahartono says. "On the other hand, the ethnic Chinese tend to give up before trying. If they are asked to pay, they pay. They don't want problems. That's why it's extremely hard to break the cycle."

In predominantly Chinese areas, for instance, Chinese merchants almost automatically reach for the till or the wallet if a uniformed official comes to visit. For low-level officials, it is easy money, and a hard habit to break. Widyahartono believes enlightened officials have a key role to play in ending the practice.

"For example, they should go and visit a shop belonging to an ethnic Chinese. When they're offered money they should refuse and explain that you've come for a friendly visit, not to extort money," he says. "When this happens often enough, the ethnic-Chinese business operators will realise that things are changing."

Meanwhile, Eddie Lembong, president of the Association of Chinese Indonesians, believes the Chinese, too, must actively strive to alter perceptions. He's lobbying hard to get ethnic Chinese to diversify out of their reliance on business and to move into areas that are traditionally out of bounds, such as the army, the police force and the civil service. (In some cases, though, this would require changes in legislation.) Lembong believes that unless the ethnic Chinese begin to open up and mix among the majority of the population, they will never uproot deep-seated suspicions and prejudices.

Encouragingly, there are signs that attitudes are improving. Take the city of Garut, in West Java. Earlier this year, officials there moved against an ethnic-Chinese businessman suspected of duping army and police officers into lending him money. Local media then reported that officials had decided that the local Chinese community should help pay back the missing money. That infuriated not just ethnic Chinese, but also many non-Chinese, including some Islamic groups, who staged protests.

Local officials insist the reports were untrue, and that there were never any intention to blackmail the ethnic-Chinese community. For Indonesia's Chinese, though, the show of support from their neighbours was a hopeful sign that they are accepted.

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