Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Black May 1998: 5th Commemoration (7 of 24)

Jakarta eases the pressure on Chinese
By Matthew Moore
The Age (February 8, 2003)

Indonesia is gradually winding back the elaborate system of discrimination against its Chinese citizens.

Foreign travellers arriving in Indonesia are still asked if they are carrying pornographic magazines or more than a litre of liquor, but the question asking if you possess material printed in Chinese has suddenly disappeared.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, this requirement to declare Chinese language books, magazines and newspapers has been scrapped.

In Indonesia's bookstores, Chinese titles now sit side by side those in Indonesian and English. Until a few years ago, Chinese-Indonesian dictionaries could be sold only if they used Latin letters throughout.

Schools are now teaching children how to read and write with Chinese characters. Chinese films screen on television and in cinemas. Any town with a sizeable Chinese population has a Chinese radio station.

Everywhere there are public signs that the elaborate system of discrimination against Chinese Indonesians refined over decades by former president Soeharto is being gradually wound back. In the most dramatic gesture of all, President Megawati Soekarnoputri declared this year's Chinese New Year, known as Imlek, would be a national holiday.

Jakarta's Chinatown was once famous as the only Chinatown with no Chinese writing. Now it is festooned with banners and lanterns decorated in Indonesian and Chinese language welcoming the year of the sheep.

These new freedoms have helped begin to erase some of the bitterness and fear among the Chinese Indonesian community whose members were murdered and raped and had their businesses burnt in the nationwide riots of 1998.

But many Chinese say much of the change is gloss and predict full equality will only come with years of struggle.

At the heart of their resentment is the issue of identity.

Indonesian adult citizens must carry an identity card. If you are a Chinese Indonesian you cannot get one without first getting another identity document called an SKBRI (Republic of Indonesia Citizenship Certificate).

And if you are a Chinese Indonesian living in Jakarta the local Government insists you also have a card called a K-1.

Getting the SKBRI can require approval from a dozen Government institutions starting at the local neighbourhood administration office, moving through the local Government bureaucracy, on to the police, the courts and finally to the Ministry of Justice. In a country as corrupt as Indonesia, officials can seek bribes at every step.

"It's a lengthy, costly, miserable process," says head of the Chinese Indonesian Association Eddie Lembong.

In theory, no one should even need one any more as the SKBRI has been abolished by presidential decree, but the officials who still benefit from its existence are not about to forget it.

Without one, Mr Lembong says, Chinese still struggle to get into state universities, get credit from a bank, get a birth certificate for their children or a passport for themselves. Lawyer Frans Winarta, who founded anti-discrimination group GANDI to push for Chinese equality, says he has documented 64 separate but interwoven laws, regulations, presidential decrees and other instruments forbidding or restricting Chinese activities.

President Soeharto used them in part to force Chinese assimilation, calling on Chinese to abandon their "exclusiveness", banning public practice of religion and cultural festivals.

Special rules applying to the Chinese were around long before Mr Soeharto seized power with the Dutch colonisers dividing the population into three categories, with Chinese included in one called "foreign orientals".

Mr Winarta describes the decades of restrictions on Chinese language and culture as "a kind of cultural genocide" that poisoned Indonesian minds and left many believing all Chinese culture was bad.

"This sticks in the minds of so many people... even some of my friends who claim they are human rights advocates," he says. Mr Winarta says even scrapping all the regulations would do little unless the Government and Chinese Indonesians work to overcome a legacy of discrimination.

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